More on Teeth and Feathers

I asked my tracking mentors to look over the Turkey Tale post and tell me what they thought.  A couple of them commented on that post directly, adding some great information.  Another (also named Dan) sent me an email and I asked if I could share it here to show how the process of discussion among Naturalists works.

Great story, man…engaging, inspiring, great role modeling for mentoring, tracking, and follow-up research.

Technically – looks good with the exception of one line that stood out to me – the one about canid vs felid carnassials. It’s incorrect.

Check out this paper to learn why:

Thanks for asking, Andy.


My reply

Thanks for the paper and the complements.

I got that info about the teeth from Elbroch. In Mammal Tracks pg 737-8 he says “Bobcats, which have less developed carnassail teeth than canines do, leave much more ragged sign… The appearance is one of chewing through feathers rather than cleanly shearing them.”

Do you think the observation of “more ragged sign” etc is incorrect or could something else account for that appearance. I agree after now looking closely at some pictures of bobcat skulls that the carnassials look pretty well developed. Have you encountered any large bird eaten by a bobcat in the field? How were the feathers dealt with?

I enjoy the back and forth of question and discovery. If anyone has experience with mammalian predation of birds please add your two cents in the comments section.


Below is what I felt was the most pertinent part of the paper Dan mentioned.  There is more in this interesting paper on the evolution of felid teeth, see the link above.

If we examine the cheek teeth of a typical cat, whether it be a lion or a domestic tabby, we see that by far the most important feature is the scissorslike arrangement of the upper and lower carnassials, the meat-slicers. This arrangement is enhanced by the fact that the articulation for the mandible or lower jaw, the hinge, is in line with the intersection between the carnassials, just as in a pair of scissors. The other premolar teeth, although by no means unimportant to the animal, are relatively less significant. When we examine the cheek teeth of a saber-tooth such as Homotherium latidens, a species fairly common in Europe around 1.0 Ma ago, we see an even greater specialization in slicing, with the anterior check teeth much reduced in size.

The dogs have carnassials too, but they are only part of a dental armory that is augmented by many more premolars in front of the carnassials and by the crushing molars behind them. The dog is therefore a generalist when it comes to food-processing ability. In the hyenas the specialization is in almost entirely the opposite direction to the cats, with the development of huge, conical, bone-cracking teeth. Spotted hyenas in Africa today are capable of eating the entire carcass of a zebra, bones and all, but even they retain the carnassials to permit them to slice meat and other softer tissues.

Copied from M. Anton and A. Turner (1997). The Big Cats and their fossil relatives. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. I present it here in good faith to add to this discussion and educate my students and followers of this blog.  If the university or the authors wish I will gladly remove the quote in favor of a link to the information.

2 thoughts on “More on Teeth and Feathers

  1. Interesting discussion on feather treatment. I have found one confirmed bobcat kill of a turkey in my forest. Confirmed because I saw the tracks leading to the kill. The kill was taken to underneath the boughs of a young spruce, indicative of a cat.

    After your post I went back to examine some of the feathers. Since this kill was several years ago, I just have a few feathers left, but what I found was that many of the feathers were still fully intact, but where they show evidence of biting is along the quill. You see a shearing there like you might find in a cougar kill when removing fur–a nice linear ‘haircut’ type of cut but small and bite-size, taken I am assuming with the incisors of the bobcat. You do have one close-up photo in your post that resembles that. Other than that, I am very interested to understand more about predation identification. It is a real skill, for sure. Thanks for your post.

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