Eating without hands or tongue: specialization, elaboration and the evolution of prey processing mechanisms in cartilaginous fishes

Biol Lett. 2005 Sep 22;1(3):357-61. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2005.0319.


The ability to separate edible from inedible portions of prey is integral to feeding. However, this is typically overlooked in favour of prey capture as a driving force in the evolution of vertebrate feeding mechanisms. In processing prey, cartilaginous fishes appear handicapped because they lack the pharyngeal jaws of most bony fishes and the muscular tongue and forelimbs of most tetrapods. We argue that the elaborate cranial muscles of some cartilaginous fishes allow complex prey processing in addition to their usual roles in prey capture. The ability to manipulate prey has evolved twice along different mechanical pathways. Batoid chondrichthyans (rays and relatives) use elaborate lower jaw muscles to process armored benthic prey, separating out energetically useless material. In contrast, megacarnivorous carcharhiniform and lamniform sharks use a diversity of upper jaw muscles to control the jaws while gouging, allowing for reduction of prey much larger than the gape. We suggest experimental methods to test these hypotheses empirically.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Feeding Behavior / physiology*
  • Jaw / physiology
  • Phylogeny
  • Predatory Behavior / physiology*
  • Sharks / anatomy & histology
  • Sharks / classification*
  • Sharks / physiology
  • Species Specificity
  • Tongue*
  • Upper Extremity*