The American Dental Association recently reported on dentists working with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to curate a special exhibit about the narwhal and its tusk. Unlike horns, which are an outgrowth of the skull, tusks are actually teeth adapted for specialized animal behaviors. With the narwhal, an amazing arctic ocean creature, the focus of the exhibition is to make the public aware of this special mammal and its fragile habitat.
Dr. Martin Nweeia, one of the dentists associated with the exhibit’s creation, has been researching narwhals and their giant tooth for over twenty years. He says about their oversized tooth, “It’s a sensory organ with millions of connections to its Arctic environment that is constantly monitoring the surroundings. The narwhal has a very different kind of construction from other teeth of mammals, and it is formed almost inside out. Our teeth are very hard on the outside and gradually as you go inward they get softer. The narwhal is exactly the opposite. It’s almost like a loose, flexible sheath, and inside is almost like an iron rod. Within that iron rod is the pulp of the nerves supplying the tooth.”
Tooth sensitivity is a problem for many humans, but not so with the narwhal! It seems like tooth sensitivity is a strength for this whale. The narwhal tusk, which is between six to nine feet long, is not used for chewing or spearing food, but instead serves as a “tool” for exploring surroundings. Its long, “out front” design makes it the perfect exploration accessory.
Studying the elusive narwhal’s tooth also has a practical application for humans. Dentists who practice restorative dentistry could learn a lot from the narwhal’s tooth. Dr. Nweeia said, “They see it as a possibility for restorative materials and other applications of biomimicry. For example, they’re making jet planes out of composites these days. What might they make out of narwhal tusk tissue?” Many advances in scientific research have come as direct result of studying the natural world and the narwhal’s tusk may lead to improvements in your own personal dental care.
Considering your own dental care, our Yuba City family dentist preforms exams and cleanings in a comfortable environment (unlike the cold home of the narwhal). We also offer restorative dentistry to replace and repair lost and damaged teeth. Contact us today for a consultation to start your summer with your teeth looking bright. And perhaps you can look your best for a visit to the nation’s Smithsonian Institute to see the dentist-curated exhibit on the narwhal!