From the Triceratops to the T. rex, prehistoric creatures have existed in a myriad of shapes, sizes, and features, each developed primarily in response to how they lived. For example, the Brontosaurus is known for its long neck, which was believed to have been used to reach high into treetops for leaves, while the Iguanodon is memorable for its thumb spikes, thought to provide a sharp and lethal defense against its foes. The Deinonychus was known for its toe claws, useful for tearing apart prey, and the Parasaurolophus’ head crest stood out as a way to make loud horn-like mating sounds.
While all of these features are remarkable, the most fearsome trait of the majority of dinosaurs was their teeth. Shaped to do everything from grinding to slashing to piercing and more, prehistoric teeth were made for eating prey -- and they were no joke. The most interesting part? All dinosaurs could replace their teeth whenever they lost them.
For any paleontologists in the making, here’s a colorful downloadable chart of 25 dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, highlighting each of their teeth.
Today we’ll explore some of the world’s most fascinating prehistoric teeth and discuss what they’re made to do and where you might be able to catch a peek today at some of them up close, fossil-style. While you will probably have to travel to see many of them, we included some fun places to view fossils right here in Arizona at the end of this article.
*As always, be sure to contact any museums or other fossil-viewing venues listed here prior to heading their way in case of a change in schedule or guidelines/rules due to COVID or otherwise.
1. Tyrannosaurus rex
There’s no use starting off with anything other than the notoriously ferocious Tyrannosaurus rex, aka “King of the Tyrant Lizards”. Sporting 12-inch-long teeth, the largest found in the dinosaur realm, this meat-eating giant normally had between 50 to 60 conical, chisel-shaped teeth which were closer together in the front than the sides. It was believed that their front teeth held and pulled, while side teeth tore apart the flesh of prey. Also known to crush bones, delivering up to six tons of pressure with one bite, T. rex not only had the largest teeth but also had the greatest bite force of any terrestrial animal. Only the C. megalodon of the sea is said to have had a stronger bite force of 18.2 tons of force.
Standing at around 40 feet tall and weighing in at around 6 - 8 tons, the T. rex walked on two strong legs and had a sturdy tail and enormous head. Its front limbs were quite small by comparison and appear to have had little value. Some scientists disagree as to whether T. rex was a scavenger or a great predator -- or simply a scavenger that also occasionally hunted.
Where can I see T. rex teeth?
T. rex was one of at least fifteen species of dinosaurs that once roamed the Arizona region. Having once been found from Texas to Montana, T. rex skeletons in full can be hard to find today. You can see a Tyrannosaurus rex skull, however, complete with its ferocious-looking teeth, in Dinosaur Hall at the Arizona Museum of Natural History on display in the Theropod section.
If you were lucky, you may have been able to check out the full skeleton of Victoria, the 66-million-year-old T. rex, when she was on display at the Arizona Science Center. You can see where this traveling dinosaur currently is here.
Victoria, the T. rex.
Since dinosaur teeth were harder than their skeletons, it is often easier to find fossilized teeth than bone. This is especially true in the case of prehistoric sharks, which did not have skeletons made of bones, but of cartilage. The helicoprion (meaning: spiral saw), a species of prehistoric shark, illustrates a good example of this, as their teeth or ‘tooth whorls’ are frequently the only part of their body fossilized. Recent studies have found that the unique spiral shape of their jaws functioned similar to a buzzsaw, and they may have actually been more closely related to ratfish than sharks. They are believed to have been carnivorous, although there have not been any full skulls or bodies found yet. For this reason, there have only been hypotheses as to exactly how Helicoprion killed and ate their prey. Some guess that they were ideal for breaking into ammonite shells, while others think the jaw could be flung out of the creature’s mouth while swimming amongst large numbers of fish, capturing many in its numerous teeth.
The Fibonacci spiral highlights the tooth-whorl of the fossilized helicoprion. While the first fossil was found in 1899, helicoprion fossils have since been unearthed in Australia, Japan, Mexico, Russia, the USA, and China.
Where can I see Helicoprion teeth?
While we couldn’t find any Helicoprion fossils in Arizona currently on display, it is said that the most famous specimens can be found in northern Utah, far central-western Wyoming, and eastern Idaho.
If you feel like taking a trip to Reno, Nevada, you can see Helicoprion fossils in the University of Nevada’s W.M. Keck Earth Science and Mineral Engineering Museum, inside the Mackay School of Mines, mezzanine level, in case number 62. While a bit of a distance away, the Keck Museum houses an impressive collection of minerals, ores, fossils, and photographs, as well as pieces related to mining.
Known for their razor-sharp, curved canine teeth measuring up to 12 inches long, the prehistoric cat known as the Smilodon fatalis was only a distant relative of our modern-day big cats (lions, tigers, etc), having a wide neck by comparison, as well as short, burly legs. They also had bobtails instead of the long tails of today’s modern big cats, which are necessary for balance.
Smilodon bodies were believed to have developed this way due to a distinct hunting method they relied upon. Rather than chasing their prey at high speeds like today’s wild felines, the Smilodon would wait above ground in low-hanging tree branches until unsuspecting prey wandered below, then would pounce on them in an ‘ambush’ style, deeply piercing them with their long ‘saber’ teeth. They would then wait for the injured prey to bleed out sufficiently enough to be easily overwhelmed and devoured.
This hunting style also helped the Smilodon balance out another flaw -- its huge, frightening fangs were actually quite brittle and easily broken. They, unlike the teeth of dinosaurs, did not grow back once damaged or lost. Smilodon also were known to have notably weak jaws.
In addition to their long fangs, Smilodon were famous for their bites. Yet while they could open their jaws up to 120 degrees, (said to be about double the size of a yawning modern-day lion), they could only bite down on their prey with a comparatively small amount of force.
Where can I see Smilodon teeth?
Smilodon fossils have been found throughout the North American continent as well as Europe. Additionally, thousands of Smilodon were found in the area known as the La Brea Tar Pits, located in the Los Angeles region of California. Scientists believe the tar pits may have attracted the saber-toothed tigers as large numbers of prey would have likely already been stuck in the tar, seen as easy meals for the big cats.
You can enjoy a multimedia performance complete with a life-size saber-tooth cat at La Brea Tar Pits Museum. The exhibit includes the results of museum studies of the 2500+ saber-toothed cats excavated from the tar pits. Large collections of Smilodon, ranging from juvenile to adult-sized fossils, are found in the University of California’s Dept. of Paleontology at Berkeley for research purposes as well.
A sub-species of Smilodon called the California Saber Tooth Tiger was found not only in California but also in Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Oregon, New Mexico, and southern Washington state. It is also the state fossil of California.
Hyaenodons, Greek for ‘hyena tooth’, were known for their slim legs, sizable heads, and amazingly large jaws. In fact, their jaws were so enormous that additional layers of muscle were necessary toward the tops of their necks. Researchers believed the Hyaenodon likely snapped their prey’s necks with a strong initial bite, then slashed through their flesh with rear teeth, breaking it down into smaller, easier to chew pieces. The creatures’ long palates allowed them to breathe as they ate, too.
The Hyaenodon was a genus comprising numerous species ranging broadly in size. The largest were the same size as modern-day wolves while smaller varieties were around the size of today’s modern house cats.
Not directly related to the wolves of today, the Hyaenodon actually went extinct leaving no descendants. They became part of an extinct group of mammals called creodonts. They only look like wolves because of a phenomenon called convergent evolution, which explains how animals living in similar ecosystems form similar traits and appearances.
Where can I see Hyaenodon’s teeth?
While we couldn’t find a place in Arizona to view the Hyaenodon, there’s a unique opportunity available if you’re ever near the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, California. In addition to numerous other fossils, the skull of a Hyaenodon can be viewed either in person or via virtual tour at the Alf Museum.
The Hadrosaur, meaning ‘bulky lizard’, was said to be “duck-billed”, with large protrusions from the top and bottom jaws and numerous teeth pressed closely together for the purpose of grinding or crushing food, which gave the appearance of a duckbill. Hadrosaurs also had hundreds of “cheek teeth” (nearly 1,000 to be exact) inside their jaws, cumulatively called a ‘dental battery’, while the creatures themselves grew to be between 10 and 65 feet in length.
Described by researchers as “probably the most complex dental system ever made,” the hadrosaur’s tooth structure was perfectly adapted to grind down plant material for digestion, which may have been integral to the creature’s noteworthy longevity on earth. They didn’t lose and replace teeth as most dinosaurs did, but rather they had parallel stacks of at least six teeth held together with ligaments. Hadrosaurs had up to 1400 teeth, including numerous ones in the back of their mouths that ground food up prior to being swallowed.
Hadrosaurs ate in a unique way, where their upper jaws pushed out and to the side while they chewed, and the lower jaws slid against their upper teeth.
It isn’t 100% known what Hadrosaurs ate, but they were generally considered plant-eating vegetarians. One specimen studied had pine needles in its stomach.
Where can I see Hadrosaur teeth?
One main type of hadrosaur was considered native to the region now known as the state of New Jersey here in the USA. They are also the official state dinosaur of New Jersey.
Having been found throughout Europe, Asia, and North America, Hadrosaur fossils can now be observed in the GeoDecor showroom in Tucson, AZ. Tours are by appointment only, so be sure to schedule one before you try to visit! There is a 10-foot slab of fossilized hadrosaur with skin included at this location.
This is Mary Ann Hadrosaur of the Naranjo Museum of Natural History.
A full skeleton of a Hadrosaur can be viewed at the Naranjo Museum of Natural History in Lufkin, Texas. Mary Ann Hadrosaur is 26 feet long and a very well-preserved Hadrosaur. You can also see a fossilized Hadrosaur bone with teeth marks in it from a Pterodactyl at the Naranjo Museum.
The Apatosaurus, a Greek word meaning ‘deceptive reptile’, was a large herbivorous dinosaur that had plenty of chisel-shaped teeth -- but strangely could not chew. It was believed to swallow its food, which mainly consisted of plants, whole. The creature’s teeth were believed to have been used to strip leaves and other foliage off branches.
The Apatosaurus’ enormous body stood on four strong legs, and they had remarkably long necks and tails. Their heads were quite tiny by comparison. They belonged to a group of huge animals called Sauropods, which were known to be some of the largest animals ever to have lived on the planet. Many of them weighed up to 45 tons each, measuring as long as 75 feet from head to tail. Their necks allowed them to reach high into the trees for leaves and other plants and food.
The skulls of Apatosaurus are rare to find as the bones tend to be thin and easy to crush. The only one ever to have been found was in the Carnegie Quarry, and today there is a cast of it on display with the remainder of the specimen at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Where can I see Apatosaurus teeth?
You can see a whole Apatosaurus on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is said to be the only mounted skeleton of the entire species. There is also a cast of the skull on display at Quarry Exhibit Hall in Utah for anyone who cares to see it.
Megalodon, which means ‘big tooth’, is considered, based on the discoveries of fossil teeth and vertebrae, to be the largest fish ever to have swum on the earth. It is said to have grown as large as 82 feet long, weighing as much as 65 metric tons, with adult females usually being larger than males.
The shape of the megalodon’s teeth, as well as the body, appeared to be similar to that of the modern-day great white shark, which suggests to scientists that the species may be related. Megalodon’s nose is believed to have been shorter and their jaw flatter, however, with their pectoral fins being much longer than the great white in order to support its immense size.
Megalodons normally ate 2,500 pounds of food daily. Even while still in the womb, megalodon babies may have eaten their own siblings. Eating them left ample room in the mother’s uterus, allowing them to grow up to 6.6 feet long at birth.
Megalodon’s jaws measured to over 11 feet wide, and their bites were considered to be at least 6 times stronger than T. rex, with an estimated bite force of between 24,395 and 40,960 pounds. This helped it keep a diet of its favorite large prey like whales, seals, sea turtles, and other sharks.
Megalodon teeth were shed by the thousands throughout the fish’ lifetimes, leaving plenty of information for the fossil record.
Where can I see Megalodon teeth?
It’s been said that the best places to find fossilized Megalodon teeth are the Blackwater Rivers of South Carolina, the Calvert Cliffs State Park region of Maryland, Aurora North Carolina, Peace River, Florida, and last but not least -- Venice Beach, Florida.
If you’re in the neighborhood of Venice Beach, Florida anytime soon, take a walk on their beaches to experience the “shark tooth capital of the world.” Bring a sifter and your highest hopes and you may just be happy with your finds here. Follow how the locals are doing it (one way is to walk along the beach looking for shiny black teeth, and another way is to wade into the water and scoop up sand wherever there is a drop-off).
8. Mapusaurus (Earth Lizard)
The Mapusaurus, meaning ‘Earth Lizard’, was closely related to the aptly named Giganotosaurus, once believed to be the largest carnivorous dinosaur. Like the Giganotosaurus, the Mapusaurus are members of the Carcharadontosauridae, a family of carnivorous therapod (having hollow bones and 3-toed limbs) dinosaurs known for being remarkably large in size, with most being even bigger than T. rex. The Mapusaurus had powerful legs and a strong tail, and they grew to around 40 feet long, weighing in at about 3 tons each as adults.
In addition to size similarities, the Mapusaurus also had teeth like the Giganotosaurus, being curved, flat, and flaunting a serrated edge presumably for tearing the flesh of prey. Researchers have posited that the Mapusaurus may have worked in packs to bring down larger prey using numerous bites from such teeth to cause profound amounts of blood loss.
Where can I see Mapusaurus teeth?
Once highly populated in the regions of Argentina, Chile, and neighboring areas, most of the original fossils of the Mapusaurus can be found in South America where they were first discovered.
The internet may be your best option for learning about these dinos. To see a perfectly reconstructed exact replica, you may need to head to a museum like the Nagoya City Science Museum of Japan.
9. Dire Wolf
Twenty-five percent larger than the biggest dog alive today (the American mastiff), the prehistoric dire wolf was huge (150-200 pounds) and long (nearly 5 feet from head to tip of tail), weighing in at 25% heavier than most of today’s gray wolves as well. Males and females were essentially the same size, other than their fangs, which were bigger in males and flaunted heavily during courtship season for their ability to kill prey.
Dire wolf’s teeth were known for crushing bones as well as slashing flesh, then eating the meat on the bones of prey as well as consuming all of the marrow inside them. Considered ‘hypercarnivorous’, the dire wolf diet consisted of at least 70 percent meat. Their prey usually ranged from 220-660 lbs each, consisting of animals like large pigs or small to medium-sized moose.
Where can I see Dire Wolf teeth?
Dire wolf fossils have been discovered in North America, southern Canada, Panama, and northern South America, where they were believed to have lived in peaceful harmony with the gray wolf for about the last half million years.
Its very first fossil remains were discovered in the Ohio River Terraces of Evansville, Indiana around 1854. Monroe and Crawford counties in Indiana also provided specimens of the creature, as did all the states surrounding Indiana except for Michigan.
While we couldn’t find anywhere to see them in Arizona, we did find a place where they can be viewed in the partial skeletal form at the San Diego Natural History Museum. There’s also a lifelike reconstruction of dire wolves alongside peccary in the Indiana State Museum.
The fascinating Allosaurus was prevalent throughout North America. Over 33 feet long and able to reach speeds of 19 - 34 mph, the Allosaurus was an imposing, impressively fast dinosaur. But what stood out more than any other of its traits was its mouth -- namely its tremendous gape.
More than 31 inches at 79-92 degrees wide, this creature’s jaw gape was wider than a right angle -- and larger than that of the Tyrannosaurus Rex’s average gape of 80 degrees. Some refer to this gape as a ‘double-hinged jaw’. With the purpose of opening the jaw wide enough to bite into large prey, this size gape is only for meat-eaters -- and ideal for the swift ambush predator Allosaurus.
The Allosaurus also had extremely sharp teeth that were serrated to produce maximum damage when biting. As they were perpetually being replaced and growing, this animal’s teeth remained in prime, sharp condition. At 3 - 4 inches long, numbering approximately 32 at a time, the Allosaurus used its teeth not only for hunting but self-defense.
Yet, the most fascinating aspect of the Allosaurus mouth was this: Researchers discovered that the Allosaurus also used its skull like an ax, “throwing” it out vertically with mouth agape, to slash into other dinosaurs. This would cause blood loss and weaken the opposing dinosaur substantially. Strong neck muscles backed up the force of this technique. This dinosaur could also move its head and body quickly away from other creatures on the attack when necessary.
Where can I see Allosaurus teeth?
While Allosaurus fossils have been found in numerous locales, none have seen more than the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry near the town of Cleveland, Utah -- from whence a good number of fossils you see elsewhere received theirs. There’s a full Allosaurus skeleton on site.
You can also see this dino at the Natural History Museum of Utah, where it’s made clear that the Allosaurus is the state fossil of Utah.
And while we didn’t find any in Arizona, you can check this list for several more options elsewhere.
If you wish to go fossil-hunting closer to home in the Phoenix area, here are some of the best options we found:
Arizona Museum of Natural History displays each dinosaur species according to the era in which they lived. There’s also a fun ‘dig pit’ for the kids to practice excavating their own “fossils”.
The Arizona Museum of Natural History is also associated with the Southwest Paleontological Society, a group open to both adults and children with an interest in paleontology. You can get involved and start getting your hands dirty doing real-life digs with this group.
At the Kaibab National Forest region of Grand Canyon National Park, visitors can see numerous species of sea fossils along the trails. It is just over 2 hours from Phoenix.
In a little less than two hours’ drive from Phoenix, the Indian Gardens Paleo Site allows digging for sea-bed fossils, which you can actually keep.
These other digging sites are similar, offering different types of fossils in different parts of the state.
If you’d like to see some dinosaur tracks, head over to the Bright Angel Trail part of the Grand Canyon Park for an area where new fossils are being discovered and taken down as inventory. If you discover anything new, you are asked to report it to the park staff and do not move it or remove it from the park. You are free to take a picture, however.
At Jungle Roots Children’s Dentistry & Orthodontics, we strive to provide the highest comprehensive pediatric and orthodontic dental care in a unique, fun-filled environment staffed by a team of caring, energetic professionals. We believe the establishment of a “dental home” at an early age is the key to a lifetime of positive visits to the dentist.