Loss of teeth and enamel in tetrapods: fossil record, genetic data and morphological adaptations


Jean-Yves Sire, Université Pierre & Marie Curie, UMR 7138 ‘Systématique, Adaptation, Evolution’, 7 quai St-Bernard, 75005 Paris, France. E: jean-yves.sire@upmc.fr


Since their recruitment in the oral cavity, approximately 450 million years ago, teeth have been subjected to strong selective constraints due to the crucial role that they play in species survival. It is therefore quite surprising that the ability to develop functional teeth has subsequently been lost several times, independently, in various lineages. In this review, we concentrate our attention on tetrapods, the only vertebrate lineage in which several clades lack functional teeth from birth to adulthood. Indeed, in other lineages, teeth can be absent in adults but be functionally present in larvae and juveniles, can be absent in the oral cavity but exist in the pharyngeal region, or can develop on the upper jaw but be absent on the lower jaw. Here, we analyse the current data on toothless (edentate) tetrapod taxa, including information available on enamel-less species. Firstly, we provide an analysis of the dispersed and fragmentary morphological data published on the various living taxa concerned (and their extinct relatives) with the aim of tracing the origin of tooth or enamel loss, i.e. toads in Lissamphibia, turtles and birds in Sauropsida, and baleen whales, pangolins, anteaters, sloths, armadillos and aardvark in Mammalia. Secondly, we present current hypotheses on the genetic basis of tooth loss in the chicken and thirdly, we try to answer the question of how these taxa have survived tooth loss given the crucial importance of this tool. The loss of teeth (or only enamel) in all of these taxa was not lethal because it was always preceded in evolution by the pre-adaptation of a secondary tool (beak, baleens, elongated adhesive tongues or hypselodonty) useful for improving efficiency in food uptake. The positive selection of such secondary tools would have led to relaxed functional constraints on teeth and would have later compensated for the loss of teeth. These hypotheses raise numerous questions that will hopefully be answered in the near future.