Ancient reptile had mammal-like tooth enamel, study shows


Priosphenodon specimens found in Argentina show the Late Cretaceous reptile evolved to have resilient tooth enamel similar to that in mammals
Published: 19May2020
Image by Aaron Leblanc.

A new study by McGill University and the University of Alberta (UofA) paleontologists shows that one type of ancient reptiles evolved a special type of tooth enamel, similar to that of mammals, with high resistance to wear and tear. The study is the first to report this kind of enamel in a fossil reptile.

The reptile—known as Priosphenodon—was a herbivore from the Late Cretaceous period that was about one metre in length. Part of a group of reptiles called sphenodontians, these reptiles are unique in that they lost their ability to replace individual teeth. Instead, sphenodontians added new teeth to the back ends of their jaws as they grew.

Priosphenodon has the strangest teeth I have personally ever seen,” said Aaron LeBlanc, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biological Sciences at the UofA and lead author on the study. “Some aspects of their dental anatomy are reminiscent of what happened in the evolution of early mammal teeth.”

The specimens were found in Argentina’s Río Negro province as part of ongoing collaborative fieldwork and research between Michael Caldwell, professor in the UofA Department of Biological Sciences and the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, and Argentinian paleontologist and fieldwork leader Sebastián Apesteguía.

In order to look more closely at the teeth of Priosphenodon, the researchers cut open pieces of jaw and examined tissue-level detail preserved inside the teeth. They also used non-invasive CT scans to examine more complete jaw specimens.

Priosphenodon enamel is not only thicker than that of most other reptiles, the enamel crystals are ‘woven’ into long threads that run through the whole width of the enamel. These threads are called enamel prisms, and they are almost exclusively found in mammals,” said LeBlanc, who is working under Caldwell’s supervision. “Our results suggest that strong selective pressures can force reptiles to come up with some very innovative solutions to the problems associated with tooth wear and abrasive diets—some of which mirror what happened in our earliest mammal ancestors.”

Hans Larsson, Director of McGill’s Repath Museum, is also an author on the new study recently published in Current Biology.

“It's extraordinary how evolution can find solutions to tweak even the microstructure of tooth enamel and reorganize the development of teeth in these bizarre reptiles,” said Larsson, a Canada Research Chair in Vertebrate Paleontology.

The scientists also note that there is one kind of lizard alive today that has prismatic enamel like Priosphenodon—the spiny-tailed lizard of Australia. Like Priosphenodon, it mostly eats plants and has lost the ability to replace its worn teeth. However, the two reptiles are not closely related.

About this study

Unique Tooth Morphology and Prismatic Enamel in Late Cretaceous Sphenodontians from Argentina” by Aaron Leblanc, Sebastián Apesteguía, Hans Larsson and Michael Caldwell was published in Current Biology.  

This study was funded by the Agencia Nacional de Promoción Científica y Tecnológica in Argentina, National Geographic, and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

About McGill University

Founded in Montreal, Quebec, in 1821, McGill University is Canada’s top ranked medical doctoral university. McGill is consistently ranked as one of the top universities, both nationally and internationally. It is a world-renowned institution of higher learning with research activities spanning two campuses, 11 faculties, 13 professional schools, 300 programs of study and over 40,000 students, including more than 10,200 graduate students. McGill attracts students from over 150 countries around the world, its 12,800 international students making up 31% per cent of the student body. Over half of McGill students claim a first language other than English, including approximately 19% of our students who say French is their mother tongue.

Contact Information

Frederique Mazerolle
McGill University
frederique.mazerolle [at]
Office Phone: 
(514) 398-6693
Mobile Phone: 
(514) 617-8615
Back to top