The evolution and development of shark denticles

Published on
03 January 2023

Teeth outside the mouth: The evolution and development of shark denticles

Rory L. Cooper, Ella F. Nicklin, Liam J. Rasch, Gareth J. Fraser


Vertebrate skin appendages are incredibly diverse. This diversity, which includes structures such as scales, feathers, and hair, likely evolved from a shared anatomical placode, suggesting broad conservation of the early development of these organs. Some of the earliest known skin appendages are dentine and enamel-rich tooth-like structures, collectively known as odontodes. These appendages evolved over 450 million years ago. Elasmobranchs (sharks, skates, and rays) have retained these ancient skin appendages in the form of both dermal denticles (scales) and oral teeth. Despite our knowledge of denticle function in adult sharks, our understanding of their development and morphogenesis is less advanced. Even though denticles in sharks appear structurally similar to oral teeth, there has been limited data directly comparing the molecular development of these distinct elements. Here, we chart the development of denticles in the embryonic small-spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus canicula) and characterize the expression of conserved genes known to mediate dental development. We find that shark denticle development shares a vast gene expression signature with developing teeth. However, denticles have restricted regenerative potential, as they lack a sox2+ stem cell niche associated with the maintenance of a dental lamina, an essential requirement for continuous tooth replacement. We compare developing denticles to other skin appendages, including both sensory skin appendages and avian feathers. This reveals that denticles are not only tooth-like in structure, but that they also share an ancient developmental gene set that is likely common to all epidermal appendages.

Evolution & Development, 25, 54– 72. DOI: 10.1111/ede.12427