Straight from the Mouths of Horses and Tapirs: Using Fossil Teeth to Clarify How Ancient Environments Have Changed over Time

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Do you or your students ever look out the window and imagine prehistoric animals wandering around millions of years ago? Or, when watching movies or shows about the ancient past, do you wonder how scientists know what the environment was like? Clarifying ancient environments millions of year ago is necessary to better understand how ecosystems change over time, providing insight as to the potential impacts of current global warming. However, understanding how scientists reconstruct past environments is not always straightforward. The activity described here allows students to carry out the same research as professional scientists, develop hypotheses, collect and analyze data, and infer how North American environments have changed over the last 55 million years. Using tooth measurements and dental microwear (i.e., the microscopic wear features that result from the processing of food) methods, students will develop science process skills through the captivating discipline of paleontology.

This module engages middle school students in the scientific process, asking them to use tooth measurements to test the null hypothesis that horse and tapir diets have not changed over time. Based on their tooth study, students are then asked to make a new hypothesis regarding the diets of these animals, testing their second hypothesis with dental microwear data. Students utilize multiple learning styles during their paleontology research projects, ultimately making scientific illustrations based on their analysis of the quantitative data.

Determining ancient diets using tooth morphology

The size and shape of teeth allow paleontologists to interpret the diet of extinct animals based on modern analogues. For example, sharp slicing teeth in lions are used to interpret their dietary strategy as being carnivorous. In contrast, flat blunt teeth as seen in domestic cows are used for grinding vegetation such as grasses. The proportions of teeth can further elucidate dietary categories by looking at the height of teeth as compared to their anterior to posterior length (i.e., hypsodonty index; see Activity Worksheet 1; MacFadden 2000). Modern grazers, such as horses and cows, have high-crowned teeth (height > length) that are able to withstand abrasive vegetation including the glasslike silica in grasses. Unlike grazers, living browsers (animals that consume leafy vegetation from trees and shrubs), such as deer and tapirs, typically have low-crowned teeth (height < length). With an understanding of how living animal diets relate to tooth shape, we can infer the diet of extinct animals.

Cutting their teeth

To begin the activity, provide students with a variety of specimens (e.g., skulls of cows, dogs, cats, horses, which can be purchased from a biological supply company or borrowed from local museums or universities) or images of skulls (useful images can be found at Ask your students to work in small groups and take about 10 minutes to examine the specimens and figure out what the animals ate. Once students have articulated how they made such inferences, discuss these dietary assignments collectively as a class. Through this opening whole-class discussion, students collaboratively inquire as to the diets of the specimens provided, using the shape of teeth to determine if an animal is an herbivore (flat and blunt teeth) or a carnivore (sharp and/or pointy teeth). This discussion provides a necessary lead-in to students' determinations of the diets of the fossil animals listed in the data table (see Activity Worksheet 1) and testing the following hypothesis: The diets of horses and tapirs have not changed over time. (See Sidebar for information on falsifying a hypothesis.)


Collectively as a class, you can introduce and discuss the hypsodonty index (HI) and have students figure out how they might use it to determine if extinct animals ate grasses or leaves. …