The jaw is either of the two opposable structures forming, or near the entrance to, the mouth. In most vertebrates, the jaws are bony or cartilaginous and oppose vertically, comprising an upper jaw and a lower jaw. In arthropods, the jaws are chitinous and oppose laterally, and may consist in mandibles, chelicerae, or, loosely, pedipalps. Their function is fundamentally for food acquisition, conveyance to the mouth, and/or initial processing (mastication or chewing). 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.
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 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.
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.)