Jaws! Feeding Adaptations in Mammals

Photograph of the skull of an African elephant
African Elephant

Animals have to eat. Unlike plants, we can’t make our own food. We can see that animals have lots of features geared up to making sure they don’t go hungry, from the senses that help them find food to the mouthparts that eat it and digestive system needed to break it down. In this Nature Classroom we will be exploring some of thefeeding adapations found in mammals. You can: discover mammal jaws with our ‘virtual handling session’ using the Museum’s collection of skulls; experiment with household objects to explore how teeth are adapted to diet; match the skull to the food the animal eats; and create a paper food chain.

To find out more about adaptations, check out our post Exploring Evolution through Colour.

These activities support learning in the following areas:

Tapir skeleton

Identify and name a variety of common animals that are carnivores, herbivores and omnivores.

Describe how animals obtain their food from plants and other animals, using the idea of a simple food chain, and identify and name different sources of food.

Identify that animals, including humans, need the right types and amount of nutrition, and that they cannot make their own food; they get nutrition from what they eat.

Identify the different types of teeth in humans and their simple functions

Identify how animals and plants are adapted to suit their environment in different ways and that adaptation may lead to evolution.

Our teeth

We all have our favourite foods – I have a particular fondness for rhubarb crumble and custard – but if you look at our diet more generally, you can see that humans eat lots of different types of food: meat, vegetables, eggs… We are omnivores – animals that have evolved to eat a varied diet, including plants and other animals.

Photograph of a lion roaring

Task: Find a mirror and take a good look at your teeth. Have a go at drawing your smile and labelling up the different types of teeth you have.

Here are a few terms for you so we can compare our teeth with the teeth of other animals:

Photograph of a chimpanzee skull with teeth labelled
Chimpanzee skeleton

Incisor: these are the teeth at the front of the mouth. The are good at biting and chopping. Think about the way you might use them to bite into an apple.

Canine: we have four canine teeth – two at the top and two at the bottom. In us they are a little bit longer and pointier than our incisors, but we’ll see some more extreme canines in some other mammals.

Molar: we sometimes call these the cheek teeth because they are positioned just inside the cheeks. They are grinding teeth, and we use them to chew. Open your mouth wide and you can see their grinding surface. Try feeling your molars with your tongue – they are quite square and a bit bumpy.

Now we are more familiar with our own teeth, how do they compare with those of other mammals?

Carnivores

Photograph of a lion skull in the Museum of Zoology
Lion skull

Carnivores are meat eaters. In the picture here we have a big carnivore for you: a lion. Can you see its long canines? They are much longer than ours. In predators the canines are used to hold and kill their prey. The molars of a lion are specialised for eating meat as well. Instead of grinding molars, carnivores have slicing molar teeth that act like a pair of scissors to cut their food up.

Get a closer look at a carnivore skull from our collection with our Exploring Skulls: Red Fox film:

Herbivores

Photograph of the skull of a bighorn sheep
Bighorn sheep skeleton

Herbivores feed on plants. It’s tough being a herbivore. If you only feed on leaves you have to eat huge amounts to get enough energy to survive. The herbivore digestive system has special chambers where bacteria act to digest the cellulose – the fibre that we as omnivores can’t break down. The teeth are adapted to grind up the plants as much as possible to make digestion easier. Explore a herbivore skull from our collections with our Exploring Skulls: Muntjac Deer film:

What features do we expect to see in herbivore teeth to make them better at breaking up leaves? This is the question we are going to ask with our experiment:

Photograph of a hippo skull

Task: Experiment at home to explore the structure of herbivore teeth

  1. Take a leaf – perhaps a lettuce leaf, spinach or piece of cabbage.
  2. With a grown up to help you, have a look in the kitchen and around the house for some different objects you might be able to use to act as ‘teeth’. You might try a knife and fork, a pestle and mortar, a couple of round stones in the garden, some tweezers… Be creative but make sure it is safe for you to use.
  3. Now try these out on your leaves. What effect do they have? Do they just slice up the leaves, or do they break them down more than that?
  4. Bearing this in mind, what do you think the molars of herbivores should be like?

Download our Operation: Herbivore Molar sheet and record your findings.

Rodents

Photograph of a beaver skull from the front
Beaver skull

Rodents have really specialised teeth. Just imagine if your front teeth kept growing and growing and growing all through your life. Well, that’s exactly what happens in rats, mice, guinea pigs, squirrels and other rodents. These teeth act like chisels to gnaw into hard foods like nuts. They have to keep eating hard foods otherwise their teeth will grow into their jaws! Get a closer look at a rodent’s teeth and see them in action with our Exploring Skulls: Guinea Pig film:

Match the Mammal to the Diet

Now we have looked in depth at how mammals are adapted to their diets, here’s a puzzle to match the animals to the food they eat:

You can download a longer puzzle here:

And the answers here:

Sketch a Skull

Photograph of a badger skull

Task: Design your own feeding machine

Now you have seen lots of feeding adaptations in mammals, have a go at designing your own feeding machine. Download our Skull Sketch sheet, choose a diet and draw a skull with the teeth and other features needed to eat it.

Food Chains

A food chain is a series of living things showing which is eaten by which. It usually starts with producer organisms such as plants – these create food using the energy from the sun. Plants are eaten by herbivores, and eventually through the series of animals we end up with the apex predator – the carnivore that isn’t eaten by anything else.

Task: think of an animal that is a carnivore. What animal might it hunt and eat? Now think about what those animals would eat. Keep on going with this list until you find a plant.

Energy and nutrients are passed along to each organism in the chain to enable those animals to live.

Task: Now turn your food chain into an open-mouthed feast!

This time begin at the bottom of your chain, with the plants. You can see that we have started with algae in the middle. Then create your herbivore around the plant. Finally create your carnivore around the herbivore! We used torn-up tissue paper and glue to make ours, but you can use any materials.

Want to act out a food chain? Why not create some Arctic finger puppets and film an icy show! You can find finger puppet patterns on our Crafty Creatures pages.

Task: What about chains that contain more than one carnivore? Download the activity sheet to help you think of complex food chains.

Carnivores do the important job of keeping the numbers of herbivores down. This means that plants are able to grow without becoming dinner too quickly, and all of the animals that rely on those plants are able to survive. This is called a ‘Tropic Cascade’: a fancy term for the impact the loss of a large predator can have on the rest of the food chain. Imagine how many flies would be in your house without the spiders to eat them! Conservation projects are beginning to re-introduce apex predators (large carnivores) into wild spaces to allow for this natural food chain and balance to return.

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