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Annual meeting course focuses on 'unicorn of the sea' and what it can teach us about teeth

September 11, 2018

By David Burger

Photo of Dr. Nweeia and Adrian Amauyumayuq working on a captive narwhal
Unicorn: Dr. Martin T. Nweeia, left, with Inuit hunter Adrian Amauyumayuq working on a captive narwhal in Qaqqiat Point in the Admiralty Inlet in Canada.  The image is taken from the Eyes On The Arctic exhibit hosted by the U.S. Embassy under a Fulbright grant to Dr. Nweeia and honoring the 150th anniversary of Canada. Photo by Gretchen Freund
Honolulu — The annual meeting doesn't usually include presentations on unicorns, much less than those in the sea.

This year is different.

ADA 2018 – America's Dental Meeting will feature a presentation called "Narwhal, Arctic Legend and its Extraordinary Tusk" (5318) on Oct. 18 from 7-9 a.m. at the Hawaii Convention Center.

Dr. Martin T. Nweeia, lecturer in the department of restorative dentistry and biomaterials sciences at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine and arguably the world's leading expert on narwhals, will present the continuing education course. It's worth two hours of credit and offered without a fee.

The narwhal is often called the unicorn of the sea, a pale-colored porpoise in the whale family found in Arctic coastal waters and rivers. It is known for possessing a large, long, straight tusk from a protruding canine tooth.

Dr. Nweeia was invited to speak at the annual meeting for his work that includes how narwhal tusk function relates to the function of human teeth and why the origins of tooth function are important to consider.

"Narwhals are important today because we underestimate how awesome a tooth can be," Dr. Nweeia said in an interview with the ADA News. "And there is no better example in nature than a narwhal tusk to remind us of that. Unquestionably, this is the coolest tooth on the planet."

He continued: "This tusk also forces us to look at the evolution of teeth, which were originally derived from Ordovician fish scales and sensory to their environment. The narwhal tooth as a sensory organ reminds us of our own sensory organ teeth, and that they are not passive organs for merely chewing and biting, but are capable of detecting many other variables like particle gradients, temperature and pressure. So we can ask in a fresh context, how did teeth evolve and what can the narwhal tusk tells us about that evolution?"

The narwhals are unique in nature, Dr. Nweeia said. "The narwhal has a tooth like no other. It is not only extraordinary but defies about every principal and property of teeth imaginable, and thus forces us to question the very definition of a tooth. It is nature's only straight tusk, only spiraled tusk and the most extreme example of dental asymmetry and sexual dimorphism in nature. And, oddest of all, is a giant sensory organ with millions of connections to its arctic environment and continuously monitors it."

The narwhal is even more strange when you consider that other than the tusk, it is toothless. "Though it relates in many of the biomaterials that constitute teeth, narwhal have no teeth in their mouths despite a diet of fish," Dr. Nweeia said. "More strange is that in their embryonic development they have the potential for 12 erupted teeth and most are genetically silenced at birth."

Dr. Nweeia's research has been so groundbreaking that much of his work, along with that of his colleagues, is featured in a current exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The museum in Washington, D.C., opened "Narwhal: Revealing and Arctic Legend" in 2017 and it runs through 2019.

"Dentistry as a profession can broaden in discipline and study by including such informative examples," Dr. Nweeia said. "We should nurture a new breed of dentists willing to explore the animal world."