Dental Detectives Use Single Tooth Fossil to Identify New Species

Paleontologists study evolution by examining as many fossils as they can unearth. These fossils are removed from rock or sediments, scraped clean and sorted based on similarities in appearance to each other and to other fossils.

One of the most common fossils from animals are teeth because they fossilize easily. Fossil teeth are valuable to paleontologists because they are adapted specifically to the animal’s diet and thus, they reveal a lot about that animal’s diet and how it fed. Amongst toothy animals, mammals are unmistakable because they have a mouth full of teeth that are adapted for a variety of functions. For example, a sharp pointed tooth is adapted specifically for tearing the flesh of fruits or other animals, whereas flat teeth are adapted for crushing or grinding bones, seeds or grasses. For these reasons, much of what we know about the behavior and diet of early mammals comes from studying their fossilized teeth.

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