Letter | Published:

Function of the mandibular tooth comb in living and extinct mammals

Nature volume 289, pages 583585 (12 February 1981) | Download Citation

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Abstract

Among the most interesting mammalian dental specializations is the mandibular ‘tooth comb’ or ‘tooth scraper’ that evolved independently in certain primates and other mammals. Its occurrence is most widely known in lemurs and lorises, where it is comprised of the long, slender, procumbent incisors (one or two pairs) and incisiform canines (Fig. 1). Innon-primates the canines are not incorporated into the comb. Some tree shrews(Tupaiidae) possess a tooth comb consisting of the four central incisors, andsome early Tertiary arctocyonid condylarths had a similar structure composed of all six lower incisors1. The extant flying lemurs (Dermoptera: Cynocephalus) also have a dental ‘comb’ but it is very different from the ones already mentioned, consisting of two pairs of pectinate incisors, each tooth modified into a comb with as many as 15 tines. This condition, although sometimes said to be similar to that in lemurs, is unique to Cynocephalus. One of the principal functions of the tooth comb in primates is to comb the fur, and we present here indirect evidence that condylarths used this structure in the same way, millions of years before tooth combs evolved in prosimians. We also show that the comb-like incisors of Cynocephalus, contrary to popular belief, probably do not function to comb the fur.

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Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy, The Johns Hopkins University, School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland 21205

    • Kenneth D. Rose
    •  & Alan Walker
  2. Museum of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff, Arizona 86001

    • Louis L. Jacobs

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https://doi.org/10.1038/289583a0

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