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The Evolution of Teeth

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss ideas about the origins of teeth, their link to hard scales on fish such as sharks and why some species regenerate theirs but humans do not.

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss theories about the origins of teeth in vertebrates, and what we can learn from sharks in particular and their ancestors. Great white sharks can produce up to 100,000 teeth in their lifetimes. For humans, it is closer to a mere 50 and most of those have to last from childhood. Looking back half a billion years, though, the ancestors of sharks and humans had no teeth in their mouths at all, nor jaws. They were armoured fish, sucking in their food. The theory is that either their tooth-like scales began to appear in mouths as teeth, or some of their taste buds became harder. If we knew more about that, and why sharks can regenerate their teeth, then we might learn how humans could grow new teeth in later lives.


Gareth Fraser
Assistant Professor in Biology at the University of Florida

Zerina Johanson
Merit Researcher in the Department of Earth Sciences at the Natural History Museum


Philip Donoghue
Professor of Palaeobiology at the University of Bristol

Producer: Simon Tillotson

Available now

49 minutes

Last on

Thu 11 Apr 2019 21:30


Gareth Fraser at the University of Florida

Zerina Johanson at the Natural History Museum

Philip Donoghue at the University of Bristol

‘The ins and outs of the evolutionary origin of teeth’ by Philip Donoghue and M. Rucklin (Evolution & Development, 2016

‘Development of teeth and jaws in the earliest jawed vertebrates’ by M. Rucklin, P. C. Donoghue, Z. Johanson, K. Trinajstic, F. Marone & M. Stampanoni (Nature, 2012)



Barry K. B. Berkovitz, Nothing But the Tooth: A Dental Odyssey (Elsevier, 2016)

John A. Long, The Rise of Fishes. 500 Million Years of Evolution (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996)

Neil Shubin, Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (Vintage, 2009)

Moya M. Smith, Fraser G. J., Johanson, Z., 'Origin of teeth in jawed vertebrates'. Infocus PRMS, 42, 5-17 (June 2016)

Moya M. Smith, Underwood, C., Fraser, G.J., ‘How teeth are organized into functional dentitions’. Infocus PRMS, 45, 16-23 (March 2017)

Moya Smith, Alex Riley, Gareth Fraser, Charlie Underwood, Monique Welten, Jurgen Kriwet, Cathrin Pfaff, Zerina Johanson, ‘Early development of rostrum saw-teeth in a fossil ray tests classical theories of the evolution of vertebrate dentitions’. Proc. R. Soc. B (Sept.4 2015)

T. M. Smith, The Tales Teeth Tell: Development, Evolution, and Behaviour (MIT Press, 2018)

Peter S. Ungar, Teeth: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2014)

Peter S. Ungar, Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet and Human Origins (Princeton University Press, 2018)


  • Thu 11 Apr 2019 09:00
  • Thu 11 Apr 2019 21:30

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