Blue whales are the largest animals to have ever lived on our planet.
With hearts the size of a car, and tongues that weigh as much as an elephant, their incredible evolutionary development has long been of interest to scientists. Like many of their biological relatives, blue whales didn’t start as giants, but developed their massive bulk perhaps three million years ago — an impressively short amount of time by evolutionary standards, and at a growth rate twice that of land mammals.
So the question is: how did they do it?
The answer, according to many scientist, is in their mouths.
Baleen in Lieu of Teeth
Blue whales belong to a group known as mysticetes, which is a subset of whales that possess baleen combs.
Baleen is a filtration system toothless whales rely on to collect food. Comprised of keratin, a fibrous protein found in human fingernails and hair, baleen combs allow whales to swallow and expel large amounts of seawater while retaining their main food source, krill.
In some species of whale, baleen combs can grow up to eleven feet long and weigh two-hundred pounds.
The Evolutionary Advantage
In the ocean, baleen combs have clear advantages over traditional teeth.
Hunting singular prey can exhaust precious calories and time, especially when prey becomes limited or extinct. Swimming from one location to another, baleen allows whales to passively gather resources with little energy expenditure. And, if lucky enough to find a dense cloud of krill, one swallow can collect upwards of half a million calories, enough energy to feed an average adult male for two hundred and fifty days!
Along with their incredible properties, baleen has garnered the attention of scientists for other reasons.
With krill populations dwindling and major changes to the habitat of several species of baleen whales like the bullhead, it is not yet clear how these factors are affecting whale populations.
Whales are incredibly difficult to study. Unlike other mammals, it’s nearly impossibly to tranquilize one and examine it in the field–let alone take it back to the lab for closer inspection–so scientist have only a limited amount of data.
One of the most promising resources has proven to be baleen samples.
Like our own teeth, baleen holds chemical timestamps and other useful data related to a whale’s health, movement, stress, and reproduction rate. How’s that for a routine checkup?
Only by studying these factors closely will we be able to create an action plan capable of helping these amazing creatures.
Our Own Oral History
Just like whales, our mouths carry numerous secrets about our diet, health, and environment, and changes to any of these factors can have a significant impact on us. Your mouth is the gateway to your body, and your oral health is both a marker and determinant of how healthy you are.
At Contemporary Dentistry, we believe that preventative dentistry is the best approach to ensuring dental and overall health. Working closely with a dentist who practices a holistic approach, communicating specifically about hygiene habits and diet, can be incredibly beneficial.