Teeth play a pretty big role in the lives of people and animals. Just think about how limited your diet would be if you were restricted to foods that you didn’t have to chew!
Surprisingly, though, there are a lot of animals across the world that don’t have teeth.
So, what are some animals without teeth?
Some animals without teeth include certain species of whales and sharks, invertebrates including worms, spiders, caterpillars, sea urchins, and octopuses, as well as, tortoises, turtles, seahorses, anteaters, pangolins, echidnas, platypuses, and birds including waterfowl. These animals have a diet and other mouthparts allowing them to eat and survive without teeth, so they don’t really need them.
Below, we’ll take a closer look at these many animals without teeth and how their diets, digestive system, and mouthparts allow them to meet their dietary needs without having teeth to eat food.
There have been around 40 species of whales discovered, classified as toothed or baleen (toothless). Many whale species do have teeth, but the number varies.
Some members of the toothed whale family might only have 1-2 teeth, while others like the bottlenose dolphin have between 74-102 teeth. Instead of teeth, baleen whales have something called baleen plates in their mouths.
Baleen plates work a lot like big bristles. They’re made out of the same material as your fingernails and hair keratin. Since baleen whales feed on smaller organisms like krill, plankton, and small fish, they use their plates to filter out water and trap their prey.
Turtles And Tortoises
Some turtles are herbivores that only eat plant matter, while others also chow down on insects, snails, and small fish in their environment. Despite some species of turtles being meat eaters, they actually don’t have teeth.
Instead of teeth, turtles have a beak-like mouth, strong jaws, and a strong tongue that helps them tear and then mash down food into small pieces before they swallow it. These are features they share with tortoises.
The exception to this is their egg tooth, which both tortoises and turtles are born with. This egg tooth is necessary for breaking out of their shell, however, they lose it a few months later. It also resembles a scale more than a tooth.
Many of us associate sharks with a wide, toothed grin and a mouth full of teeth. Like not all whale species have teeth, however, there are some species of shark that also do not have teeth designed for ripping and chewing through fish and other prey.
Rather than hunting out prey, some types of sharks like the basking shark and whale shark have large mouths with tiny, sieve-like tooth structures that they use for filter feeding. These sharks eat small fish, zooplankton, and invertebrates that they don’t need to chew.
I’ve included them because while they have some tooth-like structures, they don’t use them for eating like the typical shark.
Giant anteaters can be found in the grasslands and rainforests across South and Central America. Locals often refer to them as ant bears because of their appearance and diet.
Giant anteaters don’t need teeth because honestly, they’d just get in the way. They are insectivores that primarily eat insects. They rely on their long, sticky tongues to help them scoop up ants, termites, and other insects with ease.
Being able to rapidly pick up a lot of insects with their tongue is pretty important for the giant anteater. Even though insects are their primary diet, they aren’t immune to biting and stinging from them. So, most anteaters eat quickly and don’t eat for more than a few minutes before taking a break.
There are four species of anteaters, including the giant anteater, the silky anteater, and the northern and southern tamanduas. None of them have teeth with the exception of some tamanduas.
Even then, they only have two incisors located on the top of their mouths, which makes it hard to use them the way that other people or animals use their teeth. Researchers aren’t really sure what function a tamandua’s incisors have.
Pangolins are often thought of as the scale-covered relative of the anteater. While it’s easy to assume they are reptiles because they are covered in scales, pangolins are actually mammals. They also don’t have teeth.
Like anteaters, pangolins are toothless mammals that rely on a sticky tongue to help them eat ants, termites, larvae, and other insects that make up their diet. Sometimes, a pangolin’s tongue can be longer than its entire body. This is a good thing since they can eat as much as five pounds of insects per day.
Something else that pangolins and anteaters have in common is the way that they digest food. As they eat insects, they swallow them whole. They also swallow small rocks and dirt that stick to their tongues.
The small rocks they swallow actually play a big role in their digestive process. Once inside the pangolin’s stomach, the rocks crush the insects they’ve swallowed so they are easier to digest.
Echidnas are another animal that shares characteristics with the anteater because of their long, sticky tongue and the fact that they are both one of the few mammals that lay eggs. This might be the reason they are sometimes referred to as the “spiny anteater”.
Their diet and digestive systems are also similar to anteaters. They eat insects, worms, and larvae that they grab with their sticky tongue and swallow them whole.
Unlike anteaters, however, not all echidnas have a long snout. Instead, their mouth resembles a beak that they can use to break up larger pieces of food before swallowing it.
The size of an echidna’s mouth also varies based on its classification. Echidnas are classified as either long-beaked echidnas, Megalibgwilia, or short-beaked echidnas.
An octopus is another creature that has a beak-like mouth like a bird or turtle. It also has really strong jaws, which is important because of an octopus’ diet.
While there are many species of octopus that live all across the ocean, their general diet consists of small fish, clams, crabs, lobsters, sea stars, and other marine animals.
Octopuses catch marine animals by wrapping them up in their long tentacles and injecting poison that immobilizes them. Then, they use their beak-like mouth to tear off small pieces they can eat.
Seahorses are another ocean creature that has a lot of fascinating traits. For starters, they are one of the few species where the male seahorse gives birth and they are also another ocean critter that doesn’t have any teeth.
There are around 40 species of seahorses and all of them are notoriously bad swimmers. Surprisingly, they are also carnivores despite not having any teeth.
Instead of teeth, seahorses suck up the food they eat including small fish and crustaceans like brine fish. They actually don’t have stomachs- they rely on other organs like their intestines to help them absorb nutrition from food.
Unfortunately, their organs aren’t very efficient, which is the reason seahorses are always eating. It’s estimated they may eat anywhere from 30-50 times every day.
There are a lot of body parts worms don’t have, including legs, arms, eyes, or teeth. What they do have, however, is a powerful mouth that helps them chew through the organic matter that they eat.
In addition to their strong mouth, worms use their throat to help digest food before it moves along to the gizzard. Once in the gizzard, all the small stones and debris that worms swallow help crush food even further.
Most people know that spiders have fangs, which are what they use to bite their prey. However, spiders don’t actually have teeth. They only have these two fangs.
Most spiders feed on insects, though larger species might eat snails, birds, or bats. Since they don’t have teeth, spiders inject their prey with venom that liquefies their prey’s insides. After the venom works, the spider feeds by draining them.
It’s not clear why scorpions don’t have teeth, but one possible theory is that their sharp pincers and venom-filled stinger on their tails made them not so necessary over time. Plus, they don’t need teeth to eat.
While scorpions don’t really look like a spider, they are both arachnids that share features like having eight legs. Scorpions also feed in a similar manner as spiders. They inject their prey with venom that liquefies their insides and then drink them.
Various Bird Species
Like spiders, many bird species look like they have teeth in their mouths. Those small ridges that you see around the inside of a bird’s mouth are actually only for gripping their food.
Instead of chewing, birds swallow their food whole. They also swallow small stones that help break up the food once it makes it to their gizzard.
Some birds also have strong beaks with a lower mandible (jawbone) that lets them crush foods. You’ll often see this in birds like macaws, which also have a strong point on their beak for breaking into seeds and tearing through vegetation.
When it comes to ducks, swans, geese, and other waterfowl that have bills, you also might notice these same hard ridges that help them grip food. Waterfowl are also known for positioning larger pieces of food in their bills and then crushing it to break it into smaller pieces before swallowing. Others may take advantage of the fact that their food is already wet thanks to their comfort on both land and sea.
Like birds, they eat gravel, sand, and small stones to help with the digestive process. They are pretty interesting animals, considering they are one of 23 that can float on water.
The platypus is one of only five known egg-laying mammals. It is also one of the few mammal species that don’t have teeth to help them eat.
A platypus’ mouth resembles a beak, so it’s no surprise that they also have ridges like that of birds and waterfowl that they use for trapping food and filtering out water. They are bottom feeders that eat worms, shellfish, and insects they found in the water.
The difference between platypuses and birds, however, is that a platypus stores food in its cheek pouches with sand and grit and swims to the surface. Once it surfaces, the platypus will move food around in its cheeks until it is small enough to swallow.
Toads and Some Frogs
Most frog species have small ridges on their jaw that they use to help them grip prey, but a true toad from the family Bufonidae doesn’t have teeth at all. These toads are native to warmer climates like South and Central America, Australia, and even coastal areas in the United States like Florida.
True toads don’t need teeth because they wrap prey up with their sticky tongue and then swallow it whole. They are one of the few animals without teeth that still eat vertebrates because larger toads are known to eat small snakes, birds, mice, and even other frogs.
Frogs, on the other hand, may or may not have teeth. This is something that varies depending on the species- and there are more than 7000 identified. Some have teeth on the roof of their mouth or fangs, while others don’t have any teeth at all.
Toads and frogs can swallow animals whole because of their large neck that lets large animals pass into their stomach. Once food enters the stomach, the digestive process can start.
A lot of us are familiar with the book, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle. That caterpillar spent days eating different foods, so it might be surprising to learn that these voracious eaters don’t actually have any teeth.
Different species of caterpillars have different life cycles, but generally, the caterpillar spends about 2-5 weeks after hatching eating. They continue to eat until they’re fully grown.
Caterpillars are able to eat without teeth because of their mandibles, which grow sideways instead of up and down like a person’s. They actually can’t chew through anything with their mandibles, so they eat from the sides of leaves and grind food instead of chewing it.
Additionally, while caterpillars undergo a big transformation in their chrysalis, growing teeth is not part of it. Butterflies also do not have teeth. Instead, they use a long, straw-like tongue called a proboscis to drink nectar from flowers.
Sea urchins are flowers of the sea, coming in an assortment of colors and being covered in spikes that they actually fire when they are in danger. It’s estimated there are around 950 species of sea urchin and none of them have teeth.
The reason sea urchins don’t have teeth is that they don’t really need them to eat. Instead, sea urchins scrape algae off plants and rocks on the sea floor. As they break the algae into pieces, they suck it into their mouth using tube-like mouthparts.
Do Invertebrates Have Teeth?
I have already mentioned a handful of invertebrates on this list, meaning animals that don’t have a backbone (or other bones, for that matter). This includes animals like worms, spiders, and octopuses.
If you consider that bones and teeth are made of some of the same materials, particularly calcium, it would make sense that animals that lack bones also lack teeth.
However, this isn’t to say that some invertebrates don’t have tooth-like structures that are similar to teeth. We’ve already talked about some of the ways that tooth invertebrates (and mammals) have diets and other features that make it possible for them to eat without teeth.
Is There A Toothless Mammal?
There are actually several mammals without teeth. Those that live on land include anteaters, pangolins, and echidnas. Only two toothless water mammals made this list, including baleen whales and platypuses.
Interestingly, several of the toothless mammals mentioned here are also considered monotremes, including platypuses and the four species of echidnas. This means that they lay eggs but give their babies milk. These are the only five known monotreme species in the world.
What Land Animals Don’t Have Teeth?
Land animals without teeth include mammals, invertebrates, and other animals. Mammals like giant anteaters, pangolins, and echidnas do not have teeth, nor do invertebrates including worms and spiders.
Most bird species do not have teeth, though some birds have ridges on their jaw that help them grip food. They share these features with some frogs, though there are some species of frogs and toads that also are without teeth.
How Do Animals Without Teeth Eat?
In the animal world, being able to eat and get nourishment is pretty critical for survival. All the animals above have diets or other features that let them eat and digest the foods they need to survive. Certain species even lose their teeth as a part of evolution, just because their species doesn’t need them.
The way that animals without teeth eat and digest food varies from species to species. Baleen whales and “toothless” sharks, for example, use the tooth-like structures in their mouth to filter feed small prey rather than chewing or tearing into prey like species with teeth do.
For animals like anteaters, pangolins, and echidnas, their sticky tongue helps them eat, while the small pebbles they swallow aid in the digestive process. Teeth would only get in the way with their long, narrow snouts.
Additionally, animals that have evolved to eat without teeth sometimes digest food differently. Birds swallow stones and digest food in their gizzards, while seahorses eat several times a day because of their inefficient digestive systems.
There are a lot of creatures without teeth that come from all parts of the animal kingdom. The thing that all of these animals without teeth have in common is that their diet, digestive system, and mouthparts are made in a way that makes teeth unnecessary for their survival.
For example, animals like anteaters, pangolins, and echidnas all have sticky tongues that help them eat, while birds, turtles, and octopuses use their beak-like mouths to break or tear into food.
When it comes to digestive systems, some animals eat rocks to aid in digestion like birds and anteaters. Birds also digest food in the gizzard. Animals like seahorses, on the other hand, don’t digest the food they swallow well, so they eat a lot to keep up with their dietary needs instead.
Hopefully, you’ve had as much fun learning about these toothless animals as I have had writing about them!