Rare elephant highlights tusk-teeth connection

elephant photo
Elephant tusks are structurally similar to human teeth, but their uses differ wildly.

A rarely seen, endangered species of elephant was recently spotted in Malaysia, but scientists are especially intrigued by the animal’s unique, downward-curled tusks.

Elephant tusks are essentially elongated teeth. And researchers’ speculation about why this particular elephant’s tusks grew in a saber-tooth-like fashion reminds us that animals can have variations in bite structure and teeth positioning just like people. Though an elephant can’t seek cosmetic dentistry treatment if it’s unhappy with the appearance of its teeth or tusks.

From Teeth to Tusks

In many mammals with tusks—including boars, walruses and warthogs—the tusks themselves are essentially extended teeth, most often what we consider the canine teeth or incisor teeth. In elephants and other animals, of course, tusks serve different purposes than biting and tearing.

Elephants use their dusks for defense against predators, and in territorial battles against other elephants. Elephants also use their tusks to dig and forage for food. Tusks prove useful in stripping tree bark, and they can move obstacles out of the way.

Some tusked animals, elephants included, are distinguished by the tusks being composed primarily of ivory. Ivory is a variety of dentin, the hard tissue that makes up our teeth. The primary difference between the tissue of elephant tusks and our own teeth is that tusks lack an enamel coating in favor of one more suited to the elements. Although the dental tissue that comprises tusks grows throughout an elephant’s life, elephants don’t shed their tusks; and their tusks are similar to human teeth in that they don’t grow back if damaged.

An Elephantine Bite Condition

All African elephants grow tusks, but only male Asian elephants develop tusks (though some females have short, stubby tusks). Elephant tusks generally grow outright and curl upward away from the face.

Wildlife experts in the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo recently spotted a rare pygmy elephant with saber-tooth-like tusks. Some wildlife officials were concerned that the downward-curled tusks could interfere with the elephant’s ability to forage and defend itself, according to an ABC News report.

The pygmy elephant is not as small as its name suggests; it can grow upward of 9 feet and weigh more than 2 tons. Researchers are not sure why this particular animal’s tusks are growing in saber-tooth fashion. The animal is endangered (about 1,500 are thought to exist in the wild), and the tusks may be a genetic defect related to inbreeding. The uncommon growth may also be a congenital condition similar to a bite problem or malformed tooth, which are not uncommon among people and other mammals.

Rattling Saber-Teeth

Though elephants are not among them, many animals through the ages have had downward-angled tusks or teeth similar to the famed saber-tooth cat, including a type of salmon and a rhinoceros-like ungulate.

Today, the musk deer has perhaps the closest mammalian saber teeth. Native to Asia and found in pockets throughout Siberia and the Himalayas, musk deer lack antlers, but the males instead develop extended canine teeth, which hang like saber-tooth tusks from the mouth and are outwardly visible to potential competitors.

In people and wildlife alike, a healthy smile is important to our general health. In humans, a vibrant smile has the added effect of making us feel good about ourselves. If you’re seeking to restore a beautiful, healthy smile, please call Austin dentist Dr. Dan Matthews at 512-452-2273 to schedule your consultation at our Bee Cave Road office.

Dan Matthews DDS
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