Lemurs, those cute and charismatic primates native to Madagascar, have unique teeth that they use for grooming and eating. These small primates have evolved special dental adaptations that allow them to consume a diverse diet of fruits, leaves, and insects found in their tropical forest habitats. From sharp incisors to complex molars, lemur teeth have fascinating patterns, including a toothcomb! Let’s explore the lemur teeth and what they can teach us about these fascinating creatures.
What Kind of Teeth Do Lemurs Have?
There are currently over 100 recognized species of lemurs. All of these species are found only on the island of Madagascar and the smaller islands around it. Some lemurs are diurnal, like the ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta). However, others like the mouse lemur (Lemur pusillus), are nocturnal. Some lemurs, like the babakoto (Indri indri) at 13-21 pounds (6-10 kg) are large, while others are small like Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur (Microcebus berthae), which weighs just 1.2 ounces (33 g). However, one thing almost all lemurs have in common is their teeth!
Lemurs have a fascinating dental adaptation in their lower jaw called a toothcomb. The toothcomb consists of four elongated incisors which are flanked by incisor-shaped canines known as incisiforms. The canines are wider than the incisors but of equal length. Some species of lemurs have toothcombs that consist of only four teeth, rather than six. The origin of the toothcomb has long been the subject of debate between the grooming camp and also the feeding camp. However, recent studies suggest the lemur toothcomb is used for both, though more so for grooming.
Lemur teeth consist of enamel, dentin, and pulp. Enamel is the hard, outer layer of the tooth that covers the crown, while dentin is the layer underneath the enamel that makes up the bulk of the tooth. The pulp is the soft tissue located at the center of the tooth that has nerves and also blood vessels.
Baby Lemur Teeth
Though most extant species of lemurs have 24 milk teeth, the number of deciduous teeth in lemurs can vary based on the species. However, most lemurs have 24 deciduous teeth apportioned as follows:
- 4 upper incisors and 4 lower incisors. The incisors are the front teeth used for biting and cutting.
- 2 upper and 2 lower canines. The canines are used for puncturing and tearing.
- 6 upper and 6 lower premolars. The premolars are used for shearing and grinding.
The baby lemur’s milk teeth have the same basic structure as their permanent teeth. However, they are smaller and less durable. The eruption of permanent teeth in lemurs usually follows a predictable pattern:
- First molars
- First incisors
- Second incisors
- Upper canines
- Second molars
- Lower canines
- Third molars
- Third premolars
- Second premolars
- First premolars
The age at which lemurs have all of their permanent teeth can vary based on the species. In general, most lemurs have all of their permanent teeth by the time they are between 2-3 years of age.
Most extant adult lemurs have 36 permanent teeth:
- 4 upper and 4 lower incisors (used for biting and cutting and grooming, lower incisors only)
- 2 upper and 2 lower canines (used for puncturing and tearing)
- 6 upper and 6 lower premolars (used for shearing and grinding)
- 6 upper and 6 lower molars (used for grinding and crushing)
As previously mentioned, lemurs have a unique dental adaptation called a toothcomb. The toothcomb is positioned in the anterior of their lower jaw. It is made up of all four lower elongated incisors and also the lower canines, which flank the incisors. The upper incisors and not modified. In addition, the lemur’s premolars and molars are characterized by low, rounded cusps that are well-suited for grinding and crushing fibrous vegetation. The premolars and molars of lemurs are usually larger than their incisors and canines, proof of their herbivorous diet. The surfaces of the teeth are covered with enamel and dentin, which provides strength and durability for the grinding and also crushing of tough plant material
How do Lemurs Use Their teeth?
Lemurs use their teeth for a variety of purposes, including eating, social communication, grooming, and self-defense. The exact use of teeth varies based on the species. One of the primary uses of teeth for lemurs is eating. Different species of lemurs have different diets and therefore have teeth adapted to different feeding behaviors. Lemurs also use their teeth for social communication. Some species use their teeth to make threatening displays to deter potential predators or competitors, while others use their teeth in mating rituals or to establish dominance within their social group.
Finally, lemurs use their teeth for self-defense. Some species, such as ring-tailed lemurs, have sharp canine teeth that can be used to bite and defend themselves from predators.
The Outlying Aye-Aye
The aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) is a species of lemur that is notable for its unique dental patterns, which differ from that of most other lemurs. Aye-ayes do not have toothcombs. One of the characteristic features of the aye-aye’s dental pattern is its long, thin incisors. The lower incisors are especially large and forward-facing, forming a pair of special teeth known as procumbent (toward the lips or the front of the mouth) incisors.
These teeth are used to gnaw through wood and other hard materials to access the insect prey hidden within. In a behavior known as percussive foraging, the aye-aye taps on the tree trunk to determine the placement of larvae. Studies have shown that the aye-aye is exceptionally accurate at finding its prey in this fashion.
The aye-aye’s lower incisors grow throughout their lives. The teeth can become quite long if they are not worn down on a regular basis. However, the upper incisors and the molars of aye-ayes do not grow continuously. To prevent their lower procumbent incisors from becoming too long, aye-ayes engage in regular gnawing behavior to wear down their teeth. The aye-aye’s dental pattern is an excellent example of how evolution can lead to unique adaptations in different species.
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