Teeth have long been an important component of the fossil record, and they have proven instrumental in developing broader knowledge of specific animal species and our natural history in general. Teeth—elephant teeth in particular—were also key in advancing the once-derided theory of extinction.
The Elephant (Teeth) Man
Georges Cuvier was a French naturalist who, in the late 18th century, became fixated on elephant teeth while working in Paris for the National Museum of Natural History. At the time, most scientists believed that the primary species of elephants, the Asian elephant and the African elephant, were essentially similar.
But Cuvier, who had access to elephant bones and teeth collected from Asia, Africa, Russia and the Americas, began to notice differences between the two species, particularly in their teeth. The Asian elephant, for example, has molars with wavy ridges on the surfaces; the African elephant’s molars feature diamond-like ridges.
“It is clear that the elephant from Ceylon differs more from that of Africa than the horse from the ass or the goat from the sheep,” Cuvier stated.
A Mammoth Discovery
During Cuvier’s stint in Paris, the museum acquired bones, a tusk and teeth discovered in Siberia and North America (in what is now Kentucky) that were elephant-like, but matched no known living elephant species.
The elephantine teeth, some of which weighed more than 5 pounds, were similar, yet Cuvier determined they belonged to two distinct species. Not only that, but the teeth, bones and tusk belonged to two species that no longer roamed the Earth.
In 1796, when Cuvier made this proclamation, the theory that the planet had hosted creatures that were no longer alive was highly controversial. The ancient elephant teeth, which belonged to the mammoth and what Cuvier would later name the mastodon, were the foundation for advancing the concept of extinction.
Brush for Posterity
Teeth are among the most valuable components of fossils because they hold up well against time and the elements, and they can preserve DNA in fossilized dental calculus (hardened plaque).
In addition to helping us learn more about our past, fossilized teeth can provide important clues that may help us in the future. For example, the findings of a study published earlier this year indicate that our environment—not just our diet—may impact our dental health; the research focused on the fossil teeth of a shrew-like mammal that lived millions of years ago.
Austin, Texas, cosmetic dentist Dr. Dan Matthews is dedicated to helping you maintain a healthy, beautiful smile for life. If you’re seeking a knowledgeable cosmetic dentist in the Austin area, please contact Dan Matthews, DDS, online or call 512-452-2273 to schedule your consultation.