Whales are mammals, but they don't look like the mammals living around us, as they have a triangular fluke for tail, no hind legs and no body hair. And inside their mouths, their teeth are unfamiliar too – being much simpler and 'peg like'. A multidisciplinary team of researchers have now married together the fossil record and the embryonic development process to investigate how the whale got its teeth.
Most mammals have four kinds of teeth, each shaped for specific tasks. In most mammals there are wedge-shaped incisors, a pointy canine, and premolars and molars with bumps and valleys that fit together like a mortar and pestle when you chew. Not all whales have teeth, but those that do, such as killer whales, have rows of simple peg like teeth, each one looking the same as the next. Whales use this spiked row of teeth to grab prey, but unlike other mammals, whales do not chew. In a new study published today in the open access journal PeerJ, Brooke Armfield and colleagues investigated the developmental processes that cause the teeth of dolphins, whales' smaller cousins, to be different, and tracked the evolutionary progression of their unique dentition across the fossil record.
Whales evolved from land mammals and so Armfield and co-workers first went to the fossil record to trace when and how whales evolved their simple teeth. The fossil record shows that, 48 million years ago, whales had the same four kinds of teeth just like most other mammals. Gradually, the teeth of whales became simpler and acquired their characteristic peg-like appearance around 30 million years ago, well after the time that they had acquired an array of adaptations for living in the water.
Next, Armfield and her colleagues explored just how teeth are shaped during development. Specific proteins in the embryo cause developing teeth to grow into certain shapes. Armfield and colleagues zeroed in on two proteins, BMP4 (Bone Morphogenetic Protein 4) and FGF8 (Fibroblast Growth Factor 8). BMP4 expression leads to teeth developing into simple prongs, and this occurs near the tip of the jaws, where the incisors form. Prior to teeth forming in the embryo, FGF8 expression in the back of the jaw leads to development of molar teeth with their complex hills and valleys in mice and other mammals.