A-z - Animals

Deer Tooth: Everything You Need to Know

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key point:

  • The purpose of the incisors is to grab and pull food such as leaves, stems and twigs, without which deer cannot get food into their mouths.
  • An adult deer has a total of 32 teeth; six incisors, two canines, 12 premolars and 12 molars.
  • Like many herbivores, deer have no upper front teeth. Instead, they have a fleshy plate called a dental pad.
  • Several species of deer, including Chinese sambar, muntjac and tufted deer, have evolved fang-like canines instead of antlers.

Deer have been a part of human culture for tens of thousands of years. They are still hunted today for their meat, hide and trophy antlers. These members of the deer family live in the Americas, Europe, and Asia and are characterized primarily by the seasonal growth and shedding of antlers. They include white-tailed deer, mule deer, moose, elk, key deer, roe deer, caribou, Chinese sambar and fallow deer, among others. Almost all species of deer have the same type and number of teeth, but some deer stand out for their unique tusks.

Here, we'll delve into the specific features of deer dentition, starting with deer's deciduous teeth. Then, we'll take a closer look at each type of deer tooth, what they look like, and how they function. Next, we'll learn more about where deer are and aren't teething, and how to tell a deer's age by its teeth. Then, we'll explore the strange teeth of the Chinese sambar, the famous little blood-sucking deer.

baby deer
Fawns are dependent on mother's milk for the first few weeks of life.

©Steve Byland/Shutterstock.com

Fawn teeth: deciduous teeth

Fawns are completely dependent on their mother's milk for the first few weeks of life. Their teeth start erupting almost immediately, and by the time they are six months old, their adult teeth are beginning to replace the baby teeth.

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front teeth

Fawns have eight front teeth, all in the lower jaw. These teeth are small and much weaker than the final adult teeth.

premolars

Unlike adult deer, fawns do not have any molars, only premolars. Premolars are small and have three cusps (ridges for chewing), while adult premolars have two cusps. Fawns tend to eat more tender food and have more fine teeth to match than adult deer. They kept these baby premolars until about 18 months of age.

How many teeth does a deer have?

Deer Teeth - Deer Skull
Most species of deer have 32 teeth, but some have 34

©Chris Moody/Shutterstock.com

Deer don't develop all their adult teeth until they are about 2.5 years old. By this time, they've lost all of their baby teeth — replaced by one adult permanent tooth. They also grow molars. An adult deer has a total of 32 teeth; six incisors, two canines, 12 premolars and 12 molars.

front teeth

All species of deer have eight teeth at the very front of the jaw. Six of these are widely recognized as incisors, while the horn teeth (those closest to the premolars) are sometimes called canines. Functionally, they are the same. The purpose of the incisors is to grasp and pull down food such as leaves, stems and twigs. Without front teeth, deer cannot get food into their mouths.

Certain species of deer actually have 34 teeth; they have two additional upper canines, which are absent in other species. These teeth don't have many functions, and their exact purpose is unknown.

deer
Mule deer graze in a blooming summer garden.

©Ginger Livingston Sanders/Shutterstock.com

premolars

The next tooth after the incisor is the premolar; all deer have 12 premolars. In the jaw between the incisors and premolars there is a large, edentulous space called the interdental space. Premolars are smaller than molars but have the same irregular, ridged occlusal (chewing) surface.

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molar

Molars are the strongest teeth in a deer's mouth. They are located directly behind the premolars and, like the premolars, there are 12 of them. Molars exhibit the same ridged surface as premolars. These ridges run a long way along the teeth — that is, from nose to tail, not from cheek to tongue. When the deer chews, these ridges rub against each other, creating the perfect chewing surface for the tough plants in the deer's diet.

Do deer have upper front teeth?

deer teeth - deer front teeth

©Dany Kurniawan/Shutterstock.com

Like many herbivores, deer have no upper front teeth. Instead, they have a fleshy plate called a dental pad. This tooth block acts as a large cutting surface (think of a cutting board with the lower front teeth acting as knives). This is the main job of chopping food before it enters the molars for further chewing.

old deer with teeth

Since a deer needs to change two sets of teeth in its lifetime, the adult teeth will wear out with age, so the age of the deer can be accurately judged by the teeth.

For starters, deer don't grow their last molars until they are about two years old. So if they only have five cheek teeth, or if the sixth cheek tooth is only partially erupted, they are no older than two years old.

Once the deer have all their teeth (approximately 2.5 years old), the key to aging moves to analyzing the amount of tooth wear. Fawns have tall, pointed crowns on their teeth, especially the cheek teeth, which continue to grow through most of the deer's life. The older the deer are, the smoother their teeth will look. Also, as they wear down, more dark brown dentin material beneath the enamel becomes visible.

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Fanged Deer

tusk animal - deer
Some deer have fangs that give them a "vampire" look.

©Suvorov_Alex/Shutterstock.com

Several species of deer, including the Chinese sambar, muntjac, and tufted deer, have replaced their antlers with something very strange; fang-like canines.

In these species, the upper canines are not only present but huge. The "fangs" of male Chinese sambars are so large that they are often compared to vampires. Just as male deer of other species use their antlers, they use their tusks to compete with other males for mating rights and social dominance.

When they're not fighting with their fangs, deer like the Chinese sambar actually pull their fangs back to keep them from eating. This is possible because the fangs are loose and deer have special muscles to manipulate them. That's a good thing, too — the males can grow up to three inches long, which would certainly get in the way of feeding if they couldn't move.

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featured image

deer teeth - deer front teeth

© Dany Kurniawan/Shutterstock.com


about the author

Brandi Allred


Brandi is a professional writer by day and a fiction writer by night. Her nonfiction work focuses on animals, nature, and conservation. She has degrees in English and Anthropology and writes horror, science fiction and fantasy stories in her spare time.

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