Suction causes novel tooth wear in marine mammals, with implications for feeding evolution in baleen whales

Felix G. Marx, David P. Hocking, Travis Park, Tahlia I. Pollock, William M.G. Parker, James P. Rule, Erich M.G. Fitzgerald, Alistair R. Evans

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8 Citations (Scopus)


Teeth are the primary tool used by most mammals to capture and process food. Over the lifetime of an individual, they progressively wear through contact with each other (attrition) and with food (abrasion), creating distinctive patterns that reflect function and diet. Unlike their terrestrial cousins, many marine mammals capture prey via suction, which so far has not been associated with a specific wear pattern. Here, we describe two new types of tooth wear across 18 species of modern marine mammal (beaked whales, belugas, killer whales, globicephalines, and various seals) that likely stem from this behaviour: “glossowear”, which primarily affects the lingual side of the crown and plausibly records piston-like tongue movements during suction feeding; and “hydrowear”, which wraps around the sides of the crown and occurs as water is expelled from the mouth. Both wear types differ from attrition and biting-related abrasion in their surface characteristics and location on the crown. Horizontal scratches suggest a physical wear process, rather than dental erosion (acid corrosion) and tooth abfraction (microfracture). Since suction specifically exploits the liquid properties of water, physical evidence of this behaviour may help to elucidate marine mammal feeding ecology and evolution. For example, glossowear is found in the toothed ancestors of baleen whales (mammalodontids, at least one aetiocetid, and likely Mystacodon), where it suggests an important role for suction in the emergence of filter feeding. By contrast, it is absent in most long-snouted toothed whales and dolphins, indicating that these animals mostly bite, rather than suck in, their prey.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)493-505
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Mammalian Evolution
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2023


  • Abrasion
  • Cetacea
  • Glossowear
  • Hydrowear
  • Mysticeti
  • Pinniped

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