The evolutionary relationships of extinct species are ascertained primarily through the analysis of morphological characters. Character inter-dependencies can have a substantial effect on evolutionary interpretations, but the developmental underpinnings of character inter-dependence remain obscure because experiments frequently do not provide detailed resolution of morphological characters. Here we show experimentally and computationally how gradual modification of development differentially affects characters in the mouse dentition. We found that intermediate phenotypes could be produced by gradually adding ectodysplasin A (EDA) protein in culture to tooth explants carrying a null mutation in the tooth-patterning gene Eda. By identifying development-based character inter-dependencies, we show how to predict morphological patterns of teeth among mammalian species. Finally, in vivo inhibition of sonic hedgehog signalling in Eda null teeth enabled us to reproduce characters deep in the rodent ancestry. Taken together, evolutionarily informative transitions can be experimentally reproduced, thereby providing development-based expectations for character-state transitions used in evolutionary studies. © 2014 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.