There are a few species of fish that have teeth eerily similar to human teeth. The most well-known is probably the sheepshead fish. Sheepshead have an impressive set of molars that look shockingly like human teeth. But sheepshead aren’t the only fish with human-like chompers. Viperfish and lampreys also sport some seriously weird teeth that resemble our own.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at these three fish and uncover how and why they evolved such strange sets of teeth. We’ll also explore some key differences between human teeth and the dentition of these creatures of the deep. Ready to learn about the fish with the most human-looking grins? Let’s dive in!
The sheepshead is a stout-bodied fish found along the Eastern seaboard of the United States. It gets its name from its oversized, human-like teeth and sheeplike face. Sheepshead have an impressive set of incisors, canines, and molars lined up in their upper and lower jaws. Their molars in particular look just like flattened human teeth.
So why does the sheepshead have such humanoid dentition? Their teeth are perfectly adapted to their diet. Sheepshead are omnivores that crush and grind the shells of crustaceans, mollusks, and other marine invertebrates. Their stubby molars provide plenty of surface area ideal for cracking open hard shells and extracting the soft meat inside. Sheepshead molars also enable the fish to grind up vegetation from the seafloor.
In many ways, sheepshead teeth function much like our own. Their incisors are used for nipping and tearing food, while their canines do most of the holding and grasping. The molars in the back then crush and grind food into digestible pieces. So while startling to see, those almost-human teeth make perfect sense when you consider the sheepshead’s diet.
Sheepshead Teeth Facts:
- Sheepshead have 16 to 18 teeth in each jaw half (32 to 36 total teeth)
- Their 4 to 6 incisors at the front of the jaw are used for grasping and tearing
- The 2 canine teeth next to the incisors hold prey
- Their human-like molars (6 to 8 in each jaw half) crush and grind hard-shelled prey
Moving to the deep sea, we find another fish with a mouth full of shockingly fang-like teeth. Viperfish are ferocious predators found in tropical and temperate waters worldwide. They strike fear with their large mouths filled with long, needle-like teeth. Their teeth look similar to our canine teeth but are much larger and sharper.
So why does the viperfish need such long, fang-like chompers? They use their teeth to impale and secure fast-moving prey in the deep ocean. Their long teeth also allow them to penetrate thick-skinned prey. Viperfish feed on a variety of small deep sea animals including crustaceans, other fish, and even their own young! Those fangs make capturing slippery prey at depth much easier.
While viperfish fangs resemble our canine teeth, they are actually more similar to snake fangs. Their teeth are curved backwards, which allows them to strike quickly to injure and secure prey. The length of their fangs also allows the viperfish to grab and swallow prey nearly as big as their entire body!
Viperfish Teeth Facts:
- Viperfish have up to 60 needle-like teeth in their large mouths
- Their fangs can be up to one-third the length of their entire body
- Their curved, backward-pointing teeth are used to grasp quick-moving prey
- The fangs pierce prey and prevent escape
The last human-toothed horror of the sea is the primitive lamprey. Lampreys can be found in coastal regions of every continent on Earth except Antarctica. These eel-like creatures have jawless, round sucking mouths lined with rows of sharp teeth.
Within their mouths, lampreys have multiple rows of teeth surrounding a rasping tongue. Their teeth are all canine-like in shape and pointed backwards to help latch onto prey. In fact, lampreys are sometimes called vampire fish because they use their fang-like teeth to latch onto victims and suck their blood and bodily fluids.
Lampreys use their many rows of inward-angled teeth to attach to passing fish. They use their suction-cup mouths and sharp teeth to literally suck chunks of flesh off other fish. A single lamprey will gorge itself with blood and tissue until its prey is dead or nearly so. Though scary, those vampire-like teeth are critical hunting and feeding tools for these parasites of the sea.
Lamprey Teeth Facts:
- Lampreys have between 60 and 100 teeth divided into multiple rows
- Their teeth are all canine-like in shape
- Their teeth angle backward to secure prey
- They use teeth and suction to attach parasitically to other fish
Key Differences Between Human and Fish Teeth
While certain fish have teeth that closely resemble our own, there are some key differences between human chompers and the dentition of fish:
1. Bone versus Flesh
Human teeth are set within our jaws made of hard, bony tissue. Fish, however, don’t have true jaws of bone. Their “jaws” consist of softer cartilaginous and muscular tissue. So while their teeth may resemble ours, they are anchored in very different structures.
2. Permanence versus Replacement
Whereas humans have two sets of teeth (baby and adult), most fish continuously replace their teeth throughout life. When a tooth is lost or broken, a new one grows to replace it. Their teeth are more akin to hair or claws than our permanently set chompers.
3. Variety versus Uniformity
Humans have four types of teeth (incisors, canines, premolars, and molars) all with different shapes and functions. Fish, however, usually have similarly shaped teeth throughout their jaws. Their teeth are adapted for grasping prey rather than the variety of tooth functions in humans.
4. Source of Calcium
The main mineral in both human and fish teeth is calcium. But the source of that calcium differs. Humans obtain calcium for teeth primarily through our diets. Fish, however, extract calcium directly from the water through their gills.
So while the sheepshead, viperfish, and lamprey boast some shockingly humanlike teeth, important anatomical differences remain between our dental hardware and that of our aquatic cousins. Chalk it up to the miracles of convergent evolution!
Though an unusual phenomenon, the existence of fish with human-like teeth makes sense when you consider their diet and hunting strategies. Sheepshead teeth provide the perfect tools for crushing and grinding shells. Viperfish fangs allow capture of slippery prey in the deep sea. And lampreys’ many pointed teeth enable them to latch onto victims and feast on bodily fluids.
While shocking to see, these humanoid chompers are specially adapted to allow each fish to thrive in its aquatic environment. Convergent evolution has shaped these teeth to resemble our own given the unique eating habits of each species. But important differences remain between human and fish dentition that highlight their evolutionary journeys in two very different realms.
|Incisors, canines, human-like molars
|Crushing and grinding shells
|Long, fang-like canines
|Impaling elusive prey
|Multiple rows of backward-pointing canines
|Latching onto prey
So the next time you grin, remember you share your friendly smile with a few funny-looking fish. Chomp, chomp!