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Proc Biol Sci. 2012 Jul 22;279(1739):2849-54. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.0147. Epub 2012 Mar 14.

The sharpest tools in the box? Quantitative analysis of conodont element functional morphology.

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School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, Wills Memorial Building, Queen's Road, Bristol BS8 1RJ, UK.


Conodonts have been considered the earliest skeletonizing vertebrates and their mineralized feeding apparatus interpreted as having performed a tooth function. However, the absence of jaws in conodonts and the small size of their oropharyngeal musculature limits the force available for fracturing food items, presenting a challenge to this interpretation. We address this issue quantitatively using engineering approaches previously applied to mammalian dentitions. We show that the morphology of conodont food-processing elements was adapted to overcome size limitations through developing dental tools of unparalleled sharpness that maximize applied pressure. Combined with observations of wear, we also show how this morphology was employed, demonstrating how Wurmiella excavata used rotational kinematics similar to other conodonts, suggesting that this occlusal style is typical for the clade. Our work places conodont elements within a broader dental framework, providing a phylogenetically independent system for examining convergence and scaling in dental tools.

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