I saw a U-Haul truck with a sign about the Gray Fossil site in Tennessee. The U-Haul specifically mentioned a red panda being found at the site, so I googled "gray fossil site red panda". The first page that came up said, "One of the most exciting finds was the tooth of a red panda, found in 2002." This kind of amazed me, because it makes it seem like they found the tooth and, without other remains, knew it belonged to a red panda, which they named "Bristol's Panda". To be fair, the next paragraph says, "Over the years, the paleontologists found more teeth and more bones of the red panda", so maybe they only identified the tooth as belonging to a red panda after they had more evidence, and the article just words it to sound differently.

Either way, my question is, how difficult is to determine the origin species of a single tooth; i.e., how reliable is an identification of species that is based on a single tooth? Is this even possible? I'm reminded of a famous case where a scientist (maybe more than one) misidentified the tooth of a pig as an extinct human species, but I don't remember much of the details other than that the error was quickly caught and rectified. It just seems astonishing to me that teeth would be so unique between all species so as to correctly identify the owner of a tooth, with nothing other than the tooth.

When I try to research this answer on my own, all of the articles that come up regarding dental identification deal with either identifying specific humans by their teeth, or how human teeth are different from animal teeth, but where they fail is that none of these talk about the reliability of species identification based on a SINGLE tooth. So, how reliable are species identifications based on a single tooth?


1 Answer 1


Disclaimer: I'm no anatomist or work on these things at all.

I believe that identification of the family and possibly genus and species of a specimen based on a tooth is fairly easy. Richard Owen, the famous biologist who founded the Natural History Museum in London UK and coined the word "Dinosaur" wrote a treatise on this in the late 1800's titled Odontography: Or, A Treatise on the Comparative Anatomy of the Teeth; Their Physiological Relations, Mode of Development, and Microscopic Structure, in the Vertebrate Animals which was a seminal work on the anatomy of teeth and included many of the recently discovered dinosaur and other fossil teeth. You can read the whole book on Google Books.


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