Fossil dental exams reveal how tusks first evolved

Fossil dental exams reveal how tusks first evolved
Life reconstruction of the the dicynodont Dicynodon. Aside from the tusks in the upper jaw, most dicynodonts possessed a turtle-like beak that they used to chew their food. Image by Marlene Hill Donnelly. Credit: Marlene Hill Donnelly

A wide variety of animals have tusks, from elephants and walruses to five-pound, guinea pig-looking critters called hyraxes. But one thing tusked animals have in common is that they’re all mammals—there are no known fish, reptiles, or birds with tusks. In a new study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, paleontologists traced the first tusks back to ancient mammal relatives that lived before the dinosaurs, and to do so, they had to define what makes a tusk a tusk in the first place.

“Tusks are this very famous anatomy, but until I started working on this study, I never really thought about how tusks are restricted to mammals,” says Megan Whitney, a researcher at Harvard University and the lead author of the study.

“We were able to show that the first tusks belonged to animals that came before modern mammals, called dicynodonts,” says Ken Angielczyk, a curator at Chicago’s Field Museum and an author of the paper. “They’re very weird animals.”

The dicynodonts mostly lived before the time of the dinosaurs, from about 270 to 201 million years ago, and they ranged from rat-sized to elephant-sized. Modern mammals are their closest living relatives, but they looked more reptilian, with turtle-like beaks. And since their discovery 176 years ago, one of their defining features has been the pair of protruding tusks in their upper jaws. The name dicynodont even means “two canine teeth.”

The researchers got the idea to study the origin of tusks while taking a lunch break on a paleontological dig. “We were sitting in the field in Zambia, and there were dicynodont teeth everywhere,” recalls Whitney. “I remember Ken picking them up and asking how come they were called tusks, because they had features that tusks don’t have.”

Angielczyk had hit upon a crucial distinction: not all protruding teeth are technically tusks, and the teeth’s makeup and growth patterns tell us whether they count. “For this paper, we had to define a tusk, because it’s a surprisingly ambiguous term,” says Whitney. The researchers decided that for a tooth to be a tusk, it has to extend out past the mouth, it has to keep growing throughout the animal’s life, and unlike most mammals’ teeth (including ours), tusks’ surfaces are made of dentine rather than hard enamel.

Fossil dental exams reveal how tusks first evolved
Left side of the skull of the dicynodont Dolichuranus (NMT RB554) from Tanzania. The large tusk is visible at the lower left of the specimen. Photo by K. Angielczyk. Credit: Ken Angielczyk

Under these parameters, elephants, walruses, warthogs, and hyraxes all have tusks. Other big teeth in the animal kingdom don’t make the cut, though. For instance, rodent teeth, even though they sometimes stick out and are ever-growing, have an enamel band on the front of the tooth, so they don’t count.


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