The teeth and the structure of the jaw of the tiger both play a very important role in its hunting, diet and general way of life. These are built for grabbing moving prey (sometimes bigger than the hunting tiger itself), snapping necks, crunching through bone and sinew and grinding meat into mouthfuls soft enough to swallow. Therefore, the jaw has got to be extremely strong, flexible and powerful.
The jaw holds 30 teeth in a normal, healthy animal. These teeth are custom-built for gripping and tearing flesh.
The upper canines can reach lengths of 10 centimetres, but usually average between about 6.3 and 7.6 centimetres. Both top and bottom canines are used in killing the prey and biting chunks of meat off the carcass. The canines are particularly rich in nerve ends, allowing the hunter to be very sensitive in this area. This means that it is able to feel exactly what is going on when it grabs its prey and uses its teeth to kill it as quickly, effectively and trauma-free as possible.
The incisors are much smaller than the canines and are used to grip the prey and to rip the meat off of the bones. They are extremely sharp, making them very effective tools for tearing through thick hides, despite their smaller size. Their small, sharp structure also aids in picking feathers off of avian prey.
As in humans, the molars and premolars are designed for grinding and chewing. So, once the tiger has captured its prey and torn through the meat, it is able to process the big chunks between these teeth before swallowing it. This aids in digestion as the food is broken down significantly before reaching the stomach. There is a significant absence of teeth between the molars and the canines, which allows for the animal to hold on tight to its prey, even if it is writhing to get away.
Tiger cubs are born without teeth, like human babies. After only a few days, the first set of needle-sharp teeth are visible. At about six months of age, these milk teeth fall out and are replaced by stronger adult teeth. However, the animal is never (under normal circumstances) left with gaps or missing teeth between its milk and adult sets. Rather, the adult teeth grow behind the milk teeth, which only fall out once the permanent teeth are developed enough to replace them.
Tigers can actually be aged according to the size of their teeth, since these continue to grow. The teeth also tend to become yellow or otherwise discoloured through the years, testifying to a lifetime of hunting and living its independent life in the wild. As the tiger approaches old age, its teeth will begin to fall out, diminishing its ability to grab and hold struggling prey effectively. It is at this stage that tigers will begin hunting for prey that is very old, young or sick as it offers little resistance.
The jaw muscles are attached directly to the top of the skull, on the sagittal crest. The bottom jaw can only move up and down, not from side to side. This ensures that the jaw is as strong as it possibly could be; ideal for its purpose and role in the tiger’s life.
The structure of the jaws and teeth of these magnificent hunters only testifies to their impressive design.