Teeth are brilliant aren’t they? They outlast ephemeral skin, flesh and even bones by millions of years thanks to their strong enamel. They even survive intense heat and if an animal is unfortunate enough to lose them through injury or illness then its life hangs in the balance – a battle against starvation. For palaeontologists and evolutionary biologists their robustness has been vital in understanding the fossils of animals long dead.
Interestingly, mammal’s teeth are among the most varied in the animal kingdom. They are heterodontal; each mouth possesses a range of different teeth suitable for different tasks from grinding to slicing to piercing and lifting. Compare this to the spike and needle-like teeth that populate the mouths of fish and reptiles.
Which animals are blessed with the largest teeth on planet Earth?
Most people would balk at coming face to face with a ’gator. Human teeth grow to around 1cm in length but this hardly compares to the flesh rending 4 cm beauties sported by adult alligators.
At 9 cm long the impressive canines of panthera leo are among the most vicious of all the Big Cats. Primarily used for rending flesh and pinning prey, lions’ teeth are perfectly adapted to their environment.
When you think about animals with large teeth it’s not surprising that images from Jaws spring to mind. Sharks have cruel, unforgiving teeth that instil terror in humans. The megalodon was a shark that lived in the Cenozoic Era (28MYa to 1.5MYa ago) and their typically triangular teeth could reach an impressive 18 cm long – the largest of any shark before or since.
7. Sperm Whale
Whales fall into two broad types the ones with baleen ‘teeth’ that filter food and the ones with ‘proper’ teeth. The sperm whale has the largest teeth of any whale. They are visible only from the lower jaw; the upper jaw’s teeth never erupt. They weigh a kilo each and can be as long as 18 cm each. Unusually for mammals, the sperm whale doesn’t use its teeth for eating and hunting but for display and fighting other males.
6. Smilodon populator
If modern day lions have arguably the largest teeth of any land predator today then the smilodon or sabre-toothed tiger had the most pitiless maw of any prehistoric mammal. Their infamous out-sized canines could be a staggering 23 cm in length.
Back to the present day and it turns to the porcine visage of the warthog to take us further up the scale of even longer teeth. The 23 cm long canines are usually used more for establishing dominance or for carrying a kill rather than as a tool to aid with eating.
4. Tyrannosaurus Rex
If it’s regular teeth you want to see at this length then it’s to the most famous fearsome dinosaur ever you have to look. With 23+ cm long curved incisors the size of bananas it’s easy to imagine the damage a bite from this beast could do.
23 cm is comparatively tiny when faced with the 100 cm long upper canines of the walrus. Their tusks are the largest canines of any animal ever known. They use them for fighting, dominance and display but also employ them in forming and maintaining holes in the ice to help them climb out of the water.
2. African Elephant
Whereas the walrus’s tusks are elongated canines the elephant’s massive 300 cm long, 90 kg in weight, tusks are modified incisors. Almost a third of the tusk is embedded in the skull. Their amazing tusks continue to grow through their lives and this happens at a rate of 18 cm per year. Read more.
With little doubt, then, it should come as no surprise that the animal that holds the record for the largest teeth in the world ever, has to be the prehistoric mastodon. This predecessor of the modern elephant had tusks around 420 cm in length although this is from fossils found so far. The record may yet be beaten. Anthropologist, George Langford Sr. found the example shown below.