There are many different types of teeth inside a mammal‘s mouth. This makes it easy for us to tell what a mammal eats, just by looking at its teeth. In the Education department, we teach about the three main groups of “eaters.” For these lessons, we use a variety of skull biofacts to show the different types of teeth.
Carnivores are animals that eat meat. They have large, sharp canine teeth for catching their food, with scissor-like molars to help tear meat into smaller pieces. Any of the cat skulls work well for this group, but my favorite is either a cougar or clouded leopard. They are smaller, so they are easier to take on programs, and the clouded leopard has huge canines. At the zoo, our mammalian carnivores include lions, cheetahs, and African wild dogs.
Herbivores are animals that eat plants. They have flat, grinding molars with “clipping” teeth in the front. Some herbivores don’t even have teeth in the front! I like to use a model of a capybara skull for my sample herbivore. We have many members of this group at the Zoo, including giraffes, elephants, antelope, porcupines, and lemurs.
Once I’ve taught kids about these two types of teeth, I always bring out a “mystery skull.” I’ll carry it around, let them touch it, and then ask for votes on what the animal eats. Most of the time I can’t fool them; they figure out that it is a trick question and the animal is really an omnivore. Omnivores are animals that eat “everything” (that’s the “omni” in the word). Typically that means a combination of both plants and meat. These animals have some combination of both types of teeth. They typically have sharp, carnivore-like teeth in the front and flat, herbivore-like teeth in the back. Omnivores at the Zoo include raccoons, maned wolves, grizzly and Andean bears, and most of our primates.
Of course, there are lots of other “ivores” at the Zoo, like insectivores, piscivores, nectarivores, and frugivores. (That’s bugs, fish, nectar, and fruit eaters, if you wanted to know.) We’ll even teach about sanguinivores (blood eaters) from time to time, although we don’t have any on exhibit at the Houston Zoo. The next time you visit, imagine the teeth inside your favorite mammal’s mouth. They might reveal more than you think!
Written by Leigh Whitted, Senior Education Specialist
Now imagine all the mammals in the Zoo, and all the different things they eat. This holiday season you can help us feed our mammals (and everybody else, too) by donating to our Give the Gift of Grub campaign! You can make your tax-deductible donation at www.houstonzoo.org/gift-of-grub. or, click our our CONTRIBUTE tab on Facebook! Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.