The Evolution of Teeth

11 Apr, 2019 590 Animals (Zoology)

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.

Play on BBC Sounds website


  • Gareth Fraser No other episodes
    Assistant Professor in Biology at the University of Florida
  • Zerina Johanson No other episodes
    Merit Researcher in the Department of Earth Sciences at the Natural History Museum
  • Philip Donoghue No other episodes
    Professor of Palaeobiology at the University of Bristol

Reading list

  • Nothing But the Tooth: A Dental Odyssey
    Barry K. B. Berkovitz (Elsevier, 2016) Google Books →
  • The Rise of Fishes. 500 Million Years of Evolution
    John A. Long (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996) Google Books →
  • Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body
    Neil Shubin (Vintage, 2009) Google Books →
  • Origin of teeth in jawed vertebrates
    Moya M. Smith, Fraser G. J., Johanson, Z. (Infocus PRMS, June 2016)
  • How teeth are organized into functional dentitions
    Moya M. Smith, Underwood, C., Fraser, G.J. (Infocus PRMS, March 2017)
  • Early development of rostrum saw-teeth in a fossil ray tests classical theories of the evolution of vertebrate dentitions
    Moya Smith, Alex Riley, Gareth Fraser, Charlie Underwood, Monique Welten, Jurgen Kriwet, Cathrin Pfaff, Zerina Johanson (Proc. R. Soc. B, Sept.4 2015)
  • The Tales Teeth Tell: Development, Evolution, and Behaviour
    T. M. Smith (MIT Press, 2018) Google Books →
  • Teeth: A Very Short Introduction
    Peter S. Ungar (Oxford University Press, 2014) Google Books →
  • Evolution's Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet and Human Origins
    Peter S. Ungar (Princeton University Press, 2018) Google Books →

Related episodes

Programme ID: m0003zbg

Episode page:

Auto-category: 596.07 (Teeth and Dentition in Vertebrates)

Hello (First sentence from this episode) Hello. Great white sharks can produce about 100,000 new teeth throughout their lifetime.