Evolutionary origins of the vertebrate dentition: phylogenetic patterns and developmental evolution

M M Smith, M I Coates
European Journal of Oral Sciences 1998, 106: 482-500
The theory that teeth evolved from dermal denticles linked with the origin of jaws no longer accounts for the diversity of new data emerging from the fossil record. We have reviewed oropharyngeal dental patterns in all fossil groups of early vertebrates to establish the primitive condition, in order to understand the polarity of change. The evolutionary precedence of dermal denticles before teeth now seems less likely; both may be alternative manifestations of a common morphogenetic system. This developmental system involves regulatory changes affecting the odontode, a fundamental exoskeletal unit, and can explain skeletal diversity. However, tooth and denticle differences may have diverged at loci deep within vertebrate phylogeny, as real differences exist between them. Teeth were conceived as evolving from non-growing odontodes with regulation of precise increase in size, position, sequence of time of development, and polarity of shape. A characteristic feature of teeth is the ability to replace from a developing sequence, programmed with these parameters, prior to demand. Tooth whorls, a feature of denticles in the oropharyngeal region, may be regarded as a preadaptation of this tooth replacement mechanism. The new fossil evidence suggests that teeth may have evolved from these more specialised oropharyngeal denticles in agnathan vertebrates.

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