Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Blade-shaped conodont elements functioned as cutting teeth


CONODONTS were small eel-shaped animals with vertebrate affinities1–4. Known almost exclusively from the small, tooth-like, phosphatic elements of their feeding apparatus, they have one of the finest fossil records of any group of organisms. Until recently the identity of the animal to which conodont elements belonged was one of palaeontology's great mysteries; the function of the elements themselves, particularly blade-shaped elements, remains uncertain (compare refs 3 and 4). But recent insights into the conodont skeletal Bauplan5 allow the debate over function to be taken beyond arguments of analogy. Here we present a functional analysis of opposed blade-shaped-element pairs as components of an integrated apparatus. From this we conclude that such elements operated as cutting teeth within a grasping and food-processing apparatus.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Get just this article for as long as you need it


Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout


  1. Briggs, D. E. G., Clarkson, E. N. K. & Aldridge, R. J. Lethaia 16, 1–14 (1983).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Aldridge, R. J., Briggs, D. E. G., Clarkson, E. N. K. & Smith, M. P. Lethaia 19, 279–291 (1986).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Sansom, I. J., Smith, M. P., Armstrong, H. A. & Smith, M. M. Science 256, 1308–1311 (1992).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Briggs, D. E. G. Science 256, 1285–1286 (1992).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Aldridge, R. J., Smith, M. P., Norby, R. D. & Briggs, D. E. G. in Palaeobiology of Conodonts (ed. Aldridge, R. J.) 63–76 (Horwood, Chichester, 1987).

    Google Scholar 

  6. Lindström, M. Palaeontology 17, 729–744 (1974).

    Google Scholar 

  7. Jeppsson, L. Lethaia 12, 153–171 (1979).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Jeppsson, L. Lethaia 13, 228 (1980).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Conway Morris, S. Lethaia 13, 107–108 (1980).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Bengtson, S. Lethaia 13, 320 (1980).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Bengtson, S. Lethaia 16, 38 (1983).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Nicoll, R. S. BMR J. Aust. Geol. Geophys. 9, 133–147 (1985).

    Google Scholar 

  13. Nicoll, R. S. in Palaeobiology of Conodonts (ed. Aldridge, R. J.) 77–90 (Horwood, Chichester, 1987).

    Google Scholar 

  14. Jeppsson, L. Lethaia 4, 101–123 (1971).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Weddige, K. Cour. Forsch. Inst. Senckenberg 118, 563–589 (1990).

    Google Scholar 

  16. Norby, R. D. & Rexroad, C. B. Occ. Pap. Indiana geol. Surv. 50, 1–14 (1985).

    Google Scholar 

  17. Purnell, M. A. & von Bitter, P. H. J. Paleont. 66, 311–332 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Purnell, M. A. Progm Abstr. Can. Paleont. Conf. 1, 70 (1991).

    Google Scholar 

  19. Gould, S. J. & Lewontin, R. C. Proc. R. Soc. B205, 581–598 (1979).

    ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Signor, P. W. Neues Jb. geol. paläont. Abh. 164, 59–63 (1982).

    Google Scholar 

  21. Fisher, D. C. Paleobiology 11, 120–138 (1985).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Aldridge, R. J. & Briggs, D. E. G. Nat. Hist. 5/89, 6–10 (1989).

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Purnell, M., von Bitter, P. Blade-shaped conodont elements functioned as cutting teeth. Nature 359, 629–631 (1992).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing