Dentalium (genus)

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Temporal range: Silurian - Recent
Dentalium octangulatum 01.JPG
Dentalium octangulatum Donovan, 1804
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Mollusca
Class: Scaphopoda
Order: Dentaliida
Family: Dentaliidae
Genus: Dentalium
Linnaeus, 1758

50, see text.

Dentalium is a large genus of tooth shells or tusk shells, marine scaphopod molluscs in the family Dentaliidae.[1] The genus contains 50 described species and about 50 extinct species.


The scientific name of this genus comes from the Latin word dentis, meaning tooth, based on the tooth or tusk-shaped form of these molluscs.


The mantle of Dentalium species is entirely within the shell. The foot extends from the larger end of the shell, and is used to burrow through the substrate. They position their head down in the substrate, with the apical end of the shell (at the rear of the animal's body) projecting up into the water. These molluscs live on seafloor sediment, feeding on microscopic organisms, detritus and foraminiferans.

The shells are conical and curved in a planispiral way, and they are usually whitish in color. Because of these characteristics, the shell somewhat resembles a miniature elephant's tusk. They are hollow and open at both ends; the opening at the larger end is the main or anterior aperture of the shell. The smaller opening is known as the apical aperture.

Human use[edit]

Native Americans[edit]

The shells of Dentalium neohexagonum are known to have been used by the Chumash people as a form of currency at least as early as circa 1000 AD, in the Morro Bay area.[2]

18th-century European use[edit]

In pre-modern medicine, these shells were considered an excellent alkali, and apothecaries would pulverize them for use in several preparations. The shell used for this purpose was described by Joseph Pitton de Tournefort in London in the 18th century as being "of a tubular, or conical form, about 3 inches long; of a shining, greenish white; hollow; light, and divided lengthwise by parallel lines, running from top to bottom. It is about the thickness of a feather, and bears some resemblance to a canine tooth." However, it was considered at that time to be very rare, and in lieu of that, another shell was usually substituted. This was described as a multi-colored shell found in the sand where the tide had fallen; this shell was not channeled, or fluted. The large green shell to which the writer first refers must have been either Dentalium elephantinum or Dentalium aprinum, both of which are large and greenish, and live in the Indo-Pacific zone. The other shell was presumably another species, possibly Dentalium entale, which is native to Great Britain.


Species within the genus Dentalium include:[3][4][5]

Extinct species[edit]

Extinct species within the genus Dentalium include:[6]

  • Dentalium akasakensis Hayasaka 1925
  • Dentalium alazanum Cooke 1928
  • Dentalium angsananum Martin 1922
  • Dentalium aratum Tate 1887
  • Dentalium arcotinum Forbes 1846
  • Dentalium atratum Tate 1887
  • Dentalium attenuatum Say 1824
  • Dentalium badense Partsch, 1856
  • Dentalium bifrons Tate 1887
  • Dentalium bocasense Olsson 1922
  • Dentalium caduloide Dall 1892
  • Dentalium cannaliculatum Klipstein 1843
  • Dentalium cossmannianum Pilsbry and Sharp 1897
  • Dentalium danai Meyer 1885
  • Dentalium decoratum Münster 1841
  • Dentalium denotatum Ludbrook 1956
  • Dentalium giganteum Sowerby 1846
  • Dentalium gonatodes Martin 1885
  • Dentalium hamatum Forbes 1846
  • Dentalium hanguense Cox 1930
  • Dentalium hecetaensis Rohr et al. 2006
  • Dentalium inaequale Bronn 1831
  • Dentalium indianum Girty 1911
  • Dentalium junghuhni Martin 1879
  • Dentalium klipsteini Kittl 1891
  • Dentalium latisulcatum Tate 1899
  • Dentalium lombardicum Kittl 1899
  • Dentalium mancorens Olsson 1930
  • Dentalium microstria Heilprin 1880
  • Dentalium montense Briart and Cornet 1889
  • Dentalium moreanum d'Orbigny 1845
  • Dentalium neohexagonum Sharp and Pilsbry 1897
  • Dentalium neornatum Hayasaka 1925
  • Dentalium ovale Cooke 1928
  • Dentalium pseudonyma Pilsbry and Sharp 1898
  • Dentalium rimosum Bose 1906
  • Dentalium rugiferum von Koenen 1885
  • Dentalium sandbergeri Cossmann and Lambert 1884
  • Dentalium schencki Moore 1963
  • Dentalium sexangulum (Gmelin, 1790)
  • Dentalium simile Münster 1841
  • Dentalium solidum Hutton 1873
  • Dentalium sorbii King 1850
  • Dentalium speyeri Geinitz 1852
  • Dentalium sundkrogensis Schnetler 2001
  • Dentalium tenuistriatum Martin 1879
  • Dentalium tornatissimum Tate 1899
  • Dentalium triquetrum Tate 1887
  • Dentalium yasilum Olsson 1930

Fossils in the genus Dentalium are geographically widespread. This genus is very ancient, going back up to the Silurian period (age range: from 422.9 to 0.0 million years ago). It is especially represented in Cretaceous, Eocene and Miocene fossils.[6]