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To replace or not to replace: the significance of reduced functional tooth replacement in marsupial and placental mammals

  • Alexander F. H. van Nievelt (a1) and Kathleen K. Smith (a2)

Abstract

Marsupial mammals are characterized by a pattern of dental replacement thought to be unique. The apparent primitive therian pattern is two functional generations of teeth at the incisor, canine, and premolar loci, and a series of molar teeth, which by definition are never replaced. In marsupials, the incisor, canine, and first and second premolar positions possess only a single functional generation. Recently this pattern of dental development has been hypothesized to be a synapomorphy of metatherians, and has been used to diagnose taxa in the fossil record. Further, the suppression of the first generation of teeth has been linked to the marsupial mode of reproduction, through the mechanical suppression of odontogenesis during the period of fixation of marsupials, and has been used to reconstruct the mode of reproduction of fossil organisms. Here we show that dental development occurs throughout the period of fixation; therefore, the hypothesis that odontogenesis is mechanically suppressed during this period is refuted. Further, we present comparative data on dental replacement in eutherians and demonstrate that suppression of tooth replacement is fairly common in diverse groups of placental mammals. We conclude that reproductive mode is neither a necessary nor a sufficient explanation for the loss of tooth replacement in marsupials. We explore possible alternative explanations for the loss of replacement in therians, but we argue that no single hypothesis is adequate to explain the full range of observed patterns.

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