Mammal Teeth

Teeth in a skull
Line drawing of the upper and lower jaw, showing the location of teeth types.
Mammals have different types of teeth, depending on what they eat.

Scientists have different names for types of teeth. Incisors cut, bite, nibble, and strip. They are in the front of the mouth. Canines grab, pierce, and tear. They are located on either side of the incisors. Next along the jaw are premolars, which grind, crush, and slice. Molars grind and crush, using the leverage of the jaw for the most power.

Mammals can be herbivores, omnivores, carnivores, or insectivores. The function, size, shape, and layout of their teeth in the mouth is adapted to what they eat. Typically, the numbers of tooth types differ within species, sex, and age of the animal.

Did You Know?: Most mammals have teeth, but anteaters, platypuses, and some whales are exceptions.
Line drawing of a carnivore skull
Line drawing of a carnivore skull.
Carnivores primarily eat meat. Their canines and long teeth enable them to bite and tear. Even their molars, which grind meat, are sharp.
Line drawing of an herbivore skull
Line drawing of an herbivore skull

Herbivores primarily eat plants. Their teeth cut and grind. They include tall molar teeth with flat upper surfaces (and sometimes with ridges) and clipper-like incisors.

Line drawing of an omnivore skull
Line drawing of an omnivore skull.
Omnivores eat meat and plants. They have sharp, long canines as well as wide molar teeth with low bumpy crowns. Their teeth enable them both to tear and cut, and grind and chew.

Activity: Identify and Label Horse Teeth

Horses generally have between 36-44 teeth, all shaped for different purposes. Horses are primarily herbivores, meaning they eat plants. They can graze for up to 15-17 hours a day. Horses' incisors (and canines, in male horses) cut plants. Their premolars and molars grind the food before it is swallowed.

Eating plants leaves wear patterns on horses' teeth. Grazing continually grinds down the teeth. Over a horse's lifetime, teeth continue to erupt from their jaws to stay at the same height, until no tooth is left. If the animal lives to an old age, the remains of the tooth fall out.

Because diet and tooth wear are directly correlated, scientists can tell a lot about a horse's diet and lifestyle just by looking at their teeth. Archeologists, biologists, and zoologists are some of the scientists who study horse teeth. Scientists can learn about the kinds of plants where a horse lived; the age of the animal, sex, overall health; and other characteristics.

Check these horse teeth from Assateague Island National Seashore:


  1. Review the types of teeth, what they look like, and what they do.

  2. Choose three colors of markers/crayons/pencils.
  3. Use one color each for incisors, molars, and canines.
  4. Label the teeth. Write a few words about what each type does.

(The 3d scans of a horse skull, mandible, and teeth and these coloring sheets were created through a partnership between the National Park Service and the Virtual Curation Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University.)
Line drawing of horse skull
Line drawing of a horse mandible

Assateague Island National Seashore

Last updated: December 17, 2020