Next time you find yourself close to a duck, pay close attention while it’s quacking, and you may catch sight of a set of tiny pointed structures running the length of its beak. But what exactly are these structures? Do ducks have teeth?
We’ll be taking a detailed look at the anatomy of a duck’s bill and finding out just how they eat, so if you’re interested in learning more, then read on!
Ducks, and birds, cannot produce enamel, and therefore do not have teeth that are the same as those of mammals. However, teeth-like structures are present along the edges of ducks’ bills. These help with filtering while feeding rather than chewing or grinding food before it is swallowed.
Male wood duck showing its lamellae, comb-like structures that look like teeth and are for filtering or straining food from mud or water
Ducks swallow their food whole, and it is ground into smaller pieces in a digestive organ called a gizzard. This process uses grit and gravel swallowed by the duck and collected in the gizzard to rub against hard food items, breaking it down into smaller pieces to allow digestion to continue.
Swallowing food without the ability to chew is an adaptation that ducks and geese have developed, and although their beaks do feature a comb-like structure with jagged notches, the purpose of these is to strain out inedible debris, mud or decaying leaves, etc rather than working as an aid to breaking food into bite-sized pieces.
To learn more about how ducks digest their food, and the anatomy of a duck’s beak, please keep reading.
This northern shoveler is giving a big quack, revealing the details of its tongue and lamellae
Fossil evidence proves that in the Jurassic period, ducks did once have well-developed teeth, but gradually adapted to different dietary and environmental factors, and by the Cretaceous period, toothed birds were already a thing of the past.
Gradual adaptation to changing environments led to bird species becoming smaller and lighter in weight.
One associated modification was the decrease in size and weight of birds’ skeletons, which became less heavy and more fragile. This led to the presence of teeth naturally making way as newer, more lightweight skulls evolved.
Ducks do have tongues, but they don’t have any teeth on their tongues. They do have a series of sharp ridges on the edge of their beaks, which may be confused with the presence of a row of tiny sharp teeth.
These specialized comb-like structures along the edge of ducks’ beaks are called lamellae. These lamellae work in a similar way to the bristle-like baleen in a whale’s mouth, filtering out any inedible items such as mud and other debris from the duck’s mouth.
Ducks’ tongues feature tiny hair-like structures called papillae, which help with gripping food, and moving it into position for swallowing.
Male Mandarin Duck eating a fish
A series of tiny, sharp ridges on the edge of a duck’s bill may look like teeth but act in a similar way to a sieve, filtering out any mud or impurities from the water as the duck forages for food. These ridges, called lamellae, also help the duck to maneuver food in its beak before swallowing it. Rather than being made of enamel, like the teeth of mammals, a duck’s lamellae are made of keratin, the same material as its beak.
A key element of a duck’s digestive system is the gizzard. This is a thick-walled organ in the digestive tract, which stretches and constricts, pulverizing food before it is moved into the stomach.
It serves a similar purpose to teeth in mammals, chewing and grinding food into small enough pieces so it can then progress to the stomach.
Digestive grit collects in the gizzard, sometimes in the form of stones or gravel known as gastroliths. These gastroliths are swallowed by the duck to help break hard items of food, such as bones or cartilage.
Ducks do not have teeth, instead, they have small sharp ridges on the sides of their beaks
Ducks are unable to chew their food. They do not have teeth to grind food into smaller pieces and therefore swallow whatever they find to eat whole. Once they have swallowed food, it travels through their gizzard, where it is ground up into more manageable pieces and then is moved on to the stomach.
Among duck species, there is a great variety in dietary habits, and, therefore in how they eat and digest food.
Ducks such as Mallards have a relatively flat bill, and follow a mainly plant-based diet. In contrast, Mergansers have a more sawlike bill, which allows them to keep hold of fish and other prey they have caught and position it in their bill so it can be swallowed.
Ducks will filter out any debris or non-food items using a set of notches on their beaks, called lamellae. The food they do want to eat is then swallowed whole, before it is then ground down internally in a part of the digestive system called a gizzard.
Small stones that collect in the gizzard facilitate the process of grinding down food into particles that are small enough to be easily digested.
Merganser eating a fish
As ducks lack teeth, any food they forage for needs to be swallowed whole before it is then ground into smaller pieces in its gizzard. The duck’s tongue works to push food down into its esophagus, where it begins the digestive process.
Ducks are notorious for constantly grazing and foraging, and will typically feed all day long without any consideration to whether they are full or not.
In fact, they are so well known for their constant foraging, that one of the first signs of a sick duck is a noticeable change to its appetite and slowing down of its feeding habits.
Domestic Ducks grazing
If a duck feels under threat, then it will attack in any way it can, which may be a noisy and aggressive display. If this does not drive away the perceived threat, then there is no guarantee that a duck will not resort to biting or pecking.
Female ducks will bite at any intruders that approach her young or eggs, while males may use biting as a defense of territory or to protect their mate.
Despite not having teeth, a duck is capable of inflicting quite a painful bite, and it’s certainly something that should be avoided.
If you’re aware of a duck becoming stressed, it’s advisable to minimize the risk of getting bitten by diffusing the situation and allowing the duck to become calm.
A pair of Shelducks fighting and biting each other during the breeding season
Without exception, there are no species of duck that has any teeth. Birds cannot produce enamel so no bird species has any teeth. Ducks do have a comb-like structure on the edge of their beaks which does resemble teeth in some ways, but this is not used for chewing food in the same way that a mammals teeth do.
If you’ve ever been close enough to a duck, you may have spotted tiny serrated structures on the edge of its open bill. These are, however, not teeth, but a special anatomical feature called lamellae. Although these look similar to teeth, the main function of these pointed mouth parts is to filter or strain food from water.
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.