Contemporary Dentistry

CT Scans Help Reveal Secrets of Whale Teeth and Jaws

We live in a truly remarkable age of technology. Not only can we use dental implants to replace lost teeth, but with the amazing power of cone beam CT (computed tomography), we can get detailed images of your jawbone before surgery that lets us plan your procedure in advance for greaters speed and accuracy.

But CT scans don’t just reveal information about your teeth and jaws. Recently reported results show the insight they revealed about the evolution of whales and the origin of the mysterious baleen many use instead of teeth.

CT Scans Help Reveal Secrets of Whale Teeth and Jaws

New Insights about an Old Specimen

This research focuses on a fossil whale that was excavated in the 1970s, Maiabalena nesbittae. Researchers knew this was an interesting find, and they investigated it, but they were unable to understand much about it using traditional paleontology methods.

Thanks to new preparation techniques, researchers were now able to better clean the sample. Then they not only analyzed the fossil with their eyes and ears, they took advantage of the power of CT scans, which can create highly detailed three-dimensional images of an object. This allowed them to see features that showed the creature’s unique place in the evolution of whales.

Who Needs Teeth?

The CT images allowed researchers to discover how this unusual whale ate. The whale had no teeth in its upper jaw. Nor was there evidence that the whale had baleen. Although baleen is soft and isn’t preserved in fossils, anatomical structures can usually clue paleontologists into its existence. However, this whale had narrow jaws, which aren’t good for supporting baleen, and no other signs that it had baleen.

Instead, it had numerous muscle attachments on the jaw. This spoke to the existence of powerful cheek muscles and a retractable tongue that would have allowed it to suck in water along with soft-bodied prey. This makes it a likely antecedent for true baleen whales. Once a whale has adapted to suction feeding, there is a clear evolutionary benefit that could drive the development of baleen.

And, apparently, that benefit would drive evolution quickly. Maiabalena lived just 6 million years before some of the earliest true baleen whales, which, in evolutionary terms, represents a fairly quick change for an animal.

Teeth Are Worth It

Maiabalena found a clear evolutionary advantage in not developing teeth. That’s because teeth are expensive for the body. It takes a lot of energy, minerals, and time for the body to develop teeth. In evolutionary terms, this can make teeth a major liability. Animals with teeth have to eat a lot more–and have stricter nutrient requirements–than toothless animals.

Even so, teeth are essentially ubiquitous, especially among large animals. Toothless animals like whales are relatively rare, and that tells us that the verdict of evolution is clear: as expensive as they are, teeth are worth it.

And in this, we have to concur with the judgement of nature. Having healthy, strong, functional teeth are well worth the investment. Especially when you consider that the hardest part–actually making your teeth–is already done, it’s worth it to do the relatively easy part of maintaining them. Good oral hygiene, a healthy diet, and regular checkups can often maintain your pearly whites for a lifetime.

However, if you do find that you are losing one or more teeth, it’s also worth it to invest in functional, attractive replacement teeth. Dental implants and implant dentures are the tooth replacements that are most like your natural teeth in appearance and function.

If you are looking for a dentist in Rochester, NY who can help maintain your teeth or replace them if necessary, please call (585) 244-3337 today for an appointment at Contemporary Dentistry.