A-z - Animals

5 birds with teeth

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Animals evolve different types of teeth depending on the type of food they eat. Generally, the teeth of herbivores are flat and suitable for grinding plants. Meanwhile, carnivores rely on their sharp teeth to pierce and tear off the animal's flesh. Some animals, like sharks, continually regrow their teeth, while others, like narwhals, have horn-like teeth. Most mammals and reptiles have teeth, and even some amphibians do. However, there is one class of animals that is completely toothless: birds. Unlike their ancient bird ancestors, dinosaurs and other prehistoric birds, modern birds have no teeth. When feeding, most birds either swallow their prey whole or use their sharp beaks to cut the food into pieces. Still, it begs the question, are there any birds without teeth?

Given the abundance of photos online showing birds with "teeth," this topic deserves a deeper dive. Today, we'll be discussing 5 different birds that have teeth, or at least features that look like teeth. We'll explain where these birds live, what they look like and what they eat. Additionally, we'll examine their teeth and discuss how they differ from actual teeth. That way, the next time you hear the claim that birds have teeth, you'll know what to say to end the conversation. Without further ado, let's savor the topic of long-toothed birds.

#5: Goose

Goose head close-up
Geese have tooth-like structures called tomia that help them pull out grass to graze.

©Joos/Shutterstock.com

Along with swans and ducks, geese belong to the waterfowl family Anatidae. In total there are more than 20 individual species. While some birds are named after geese, such as the African pygmy goose, these birds are technically ducks or swans. Most geese belong to the Anser genus, or white or gray geese, or Branta or black geese. You can find geese on every continent except Antarctica, usually in wetland habitats. That said, they also spend a lot of time in fields, meadows, and open urban areas. Most geese have long, thin necks, flattened bills that taper near the tip, and webbed feet. Geese primarily eat grass, roots, stems, seeds and berries, but will also eat insects. After chickens, geese are one of the most common domesticated birds in the world. Today, many domesticated breeds exist outside the true geese species.

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While many people think of geese as birds with teeth, this is a common misconception. This belief comes from the tiny tooth-like structures that line the geese's beaks and tongues. These structures, called tomia, are made of tomium, a type of tough cartilage. Depending on the species, tomia can be long or short, abundant or sparse. Geese evolved tomia to help them feed on grass. When feeding, they rely on "teeth" that help them tear and tear away grass. While tomia aren't technically teeth, they're still pretty sharp. Geese can be very aggressive if threatened or when defending their territory, and some will attack humans. Therefore, if you don't want to be bitten, it's best to stay away from them.

#4: Penguins

Penguins' mouths are filled with hook-like structures made of keratin called papillae that help them grab fish.

© Mike Korostelev/Shutterstock.com

Another set of birds whose teeth are not teeth, penguins belong to the penguinidae. In total, there are 18 different species of penguins, most of which live in Antarctica or its surrounding islands. Additionally, they live off the southern coasts of South America, Africa, and Australia. While some penguins, such as emperor penguins, migrate great distances, others live in the same habitat year-round. Penguins have tapered, upright bodies, long flippers, webbed feet, and large, pointed beaks. They range in size from 12 inches to 4.3 feet tall and weigh between 3.3 and 41 pounds. Although they cannot fly, penguins are very good swimmers. They can reach speeds of nearly 5.6 miles per hour and hold their breath for up to 20 minutes. Their speed and ability in the water help them hunt for food such as fish, krill and squid.

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Penguins also make our list of toothy birds, although like other birds, they don't have real teeth. Penguins' beaks are made of keratin and usually end with a hook, which helps them grasp objects. Penguins' mouths contain a collection of spiky, tooth-looking structures called papillae. Also made of keratin, the penguin's tongue, upper and lower jaws are lined with papillae. They curve toward the back of the penguin's mouth, which helps them catch slippery fish. In a sense, penguins have built-in hooks in their mouths that prevent their food from escaping.

#3: Tooth-billed Bowerbird

Birds with teeth: Tooth-billed bowerbird
The fang-billed bowerbird has serrations in its beak that help it cut through the stems of leaves.

©Jukka Jantunen/Shutterstock.com

The tooth-billed bowerbird, also known as the tooth-billed catbird, is a member of the bowerbird family Ptilonorhynchidae. It is endemic to Australia and prefers to live in forests at high altitudes. Most specimens are about 11 inches long. Their plumage is greenish-brown on the back and head, and white with brown stripes on the chest and underparts. Their diet is mainly fruit and leaves, but they will also eat insects and seeds. Like all bowerbirds, the male fangbill will build an arbor or structure to attract potential mates. It gets its name from its distinctive beak, which contains jagged edges that look like teeth. This adaptation led many casual observers to mistake them for toothed birds. Their beaks are actually notched, which helps them cut through leaves and succulent stems.

#2: Toucans

The most expensive bird - the toucan
The beak of the toucan has forward-facing serrations that look like teeth.

©iStock.com/edurivero

Toucans belong to the family Ramphastidae, which also includes barbets and aracaris. In total, there are more than 40 species of toucans, all found in Mexico, Central and South America. They are not migratory and usually live in lowland tropical forests with large areas of old trees. On average, they are between 11 and 25 inches long and weigh between 0.25 and 1.5 pounds. In addition, they have short bodies and wings, round tails, and large, colorful mouths. Their diet consists mainly of fruit, but they also eat insects, small birds, and reptiles. The toucan's beak is made of keratin and contains many forward-facing serrations. These serrations are why many people think toucans are birds with teeth. Some scientists believe their "toothy" beaks help them scare away other birds so they can raid their nests. Male toucans also use their beaks to assert dominance during wrestling.

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#1: Dinosaurs

How long have dinosaurs been on earth
Modern toothless birds evolved from the answer of toothed dinosaurs and similar contemporary birds.

©Orla/Shutterstock.com

Modern birds likely evolved from theropod dinosaurs of the Jurassic era. Examples of theropods include Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor. Unlike modern birds, these ancient "birds" had mouths full of teeth. One of the earliest known ancestors of modern birds was Archeopteryx. The name of this bird-like dinosaur translates to "ancient wings" in ancient Greek. It lived nearly 150 million years ago in what is now modern central Europe. They were about 20 inches long and had a long, bony tail similar to other dinosaurs of the time. Additionally, they have small, sharp teeth inside their beaks. Along with several earlier species, Archeopteryx may have helped pave the way for modern toothless birds.

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