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Dentistry Ohio

Meet the Narwhal: Nature's "Most Extraordinary Tooth"

Like me, Dr. Martin Nweeia is a general dentist.  He practices in Sharon, CT.  Unlike me Dr. Nweeia spends time each year on the northern tip of Baffin Island in Nunavut, one of the Canadian territories.  Armed with his trusty dry suit Dr. Nweeia wades on the fringes of ice floes in 36 degree waters, battling 120mph winds, looking regularly over his shoulder for polar bears.  And what would compel Dr. Nweeia, or anyone else for that matter to brave such conditions?  Dr. Nweeia and his research colleagues search the icy Arctic environment for a somewhat mythological member of the whale family, the narwhal, proud carrier of the “the most extraordinary tooth in nature”! 

“In my own dental practice”, reports Dr. Nweeia, “I am always communicating how unusual and sensory our teeth are in function.  We all tend to get this passive sense of teeth as instruments used in biting and chewing and often forget their tissue origins and abilities as sensory organs.”  Dr. Nweeia’s research on the narwhal focuses exclusively on their unique unicorn-like 6 to 9 foot long spiraled tooth/tusk that projects directly in front of them probing the watery darkness ahead.  What he and his colleagues have learned is that the narwhal’s unique tooth has a direct sensory pathway to the whale’s brain.  Indeed the narwhal’s tooth is a hydrodynamic sensor capable of detecting particle gradients, as well as water temperature, pressure and salinity/saltiness. 

“Exploration, wonder and mystery are all wound up in this magnificent spiraled tusk and sensory organ” beamed Dr. Nweeia.  “This is the first tooth that has been shown in vivo testing to have sensory function to a normal variable in its environment that is not necessarily associated with flight or fright reaction.” 

Dr. Nweeia also reported to the ADA News that “Traditional knowledge has unlocked many of the mysteries our team has searched for.  In the 10-year parallel study of Inuit traditional knowledge… there have been keen insights on behavior, migration, anatomy and morphology.  The observations of hunters and elders in these Arctic areas have been invaluable in our work.” 

If you’re really interested in this ongoing research give me a call and we’ll get our trip planned to join Dr. Nweeia next year. Well, maybe we should just start by visiting or searching ‘narwhal’. 


Tagged In: Nature

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