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File:Human jawbone left.jpg

Human jaw left view

The jaw is either of the two opposable structures forming, or near the entrance to the mouth.

The term jaws is also broadly applied to the whole of the structures constituting the vault of the mouth and serving to open and close it and is part of the body plan of most animals.

The human jaw

The jaw plays an important role in eating, particularly in the preliminary breakdown of food through mastication. It also plays a significant role in articulation and speech

The mandible is attached to the temporal bone by the temporomandibular joint. A common disorder of this joint is temporomandibular joint disorder which can cause pain and loss of mobility.


File:Bullant head detail.jpg

The mandibles of a Bull ant

In arthropods, the jaws are chitinous and oppose laterally, and may consist of mandibles, chelicerae, or loosely, pedipalps.

Their function is fundamentally for food acquisition, conveyance to the mouth, and/or initial processing (mastication or chewing).


In most vertebrates, the jaws are bony or cartilaginous and oppose vertically, comprising an upper jaw and a lower jaw.

Bones of the jaw

In vertebrates, the lower jaw, dentary or mandible is the mobile component that articulates at its posterior processes, or rami (singular ramus), with the temporal bones of the skull on either side; the word jaw used in the singular typically refers to the lower jaw.

The upper jaw or maxilla is more or less fixed with the skull and is composed of two bones, the maxillae, fused intimately at the median line by a suture; incomplete closure of this suture and surrounding structures may be involved in the malformation known as cleft palate.

The maxillary bones form parts of the roof of the mouth, the floor and sides of the nasal cavity, and the floor of the orbit or eye socket.

The jaws typically accommodate the teeth or form the bases for the attachment of a beak.

The jaw in fish and amphibians

File:Great white shark at his back11.jpg

Jaws of great white shark

File:Pharyngeal jaws of moray eels.svg

Moray eels have two sets of jaws: the oral jaws that capture prey and the pharyngeal jaws that advance into the mouth and move prey from the oral jaws to the esophagus for swallowing

The vertebrate jaw probably originally evolved in the Silurian period and appeared in the Placoderm fish which further diversified in the Devonian. Jaws are thought to derive from the pharyngeal arches that support the gills in fish. The two most anterior of these arches are thought to have become the jaw itself and the hyoid arch, which braces the jaw against the braincase and increases mechanical efficiency. While there is no fossil evidence directly to support this theory, it makes sense in light of the numbers of pharyngeal arches that are visible in extant jawed (the Gnathostomes), which have seven arches, and primitive jawless vertebrates (the Agnatha), which have nine.

It is thought that the original selective advantage garnered by the jaw was not related to feeding, but to increased respiration efficiency. The jaws were used in the buccal pump (observable in modern fish and amphibians) that pumps water across the gills of fish or air into the lungs in the case of amphibians. Over evolutionary time the more familiar use of jaws (to humans), in feeding, was selected for and became a very important function in vertebrates.

The jaw in reptiles

In reptiles, the mandible is made up of five bones. In the evolution of mammals, four of these bones were reduced in size and incorporated into the ear. In their reduced form, they are known as the malleus and incus; along with the more ancient stapes, they are the ossicles. This adaptation is advantageous, not only because a one-bone jaw is stronger, but also because the malleus and incus improve hearing. (However, reptiles tend to swallow prey whole because their pace of digestion is different than mammals, so multiple jaw bones may allow flexibility to expand the jaws around prey.)

See also

References & Bibliography

Key texts


  • Hollingworth, H. L. (1939). Psycho-dynamics of chewing: (1939) Psycho-dynamics of chewing 90 pp Unknown Publisher.
  • Jacobs, B. L., Stafford, I. L., & Ribeiro do Valle, L. E. (1989). The masseteric (jaw closure) reflex: A simple mammalian brainstem system for studying neurochemical modulation. New York, NY: New York Academy of Sciences.
  • Ostry, D. J., Flanagan, J. R., Feldman, A. G., & Munhall, K. G. (1991). Human jaw motion control in mastication and speech. New York, NY: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.


Additional material


  • Scavio, M. J., Jr. (1987). Appetitive-aversive interactions in rabbit conditioning preparations. Hillsdale, NJ, England: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.


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