The campus community can sink their teeth into a new exhibit housed in the Science Library. Titled “Wisdom Teeth,” the 30-piece exhibit showcases a series of skulls and jaws, each highlighting the amazing dental morphology that has evolved in the vertebrate lineage. All displayed specimens are housed in Wesleyan’s George Brown Goode Biology Collections.
Most vertebrates, such as an iguana or pelican, have “homodont” dentition with identical tooth structures throughout their jaw. Mammals, however, have “heterodont,” or specialized teeth (for example incisors to seize prey and molars to grind food so it may be digested more easily). Examples of both dentitions are displayed in the exhibit.
The “Wisdom Teeth” exhibit also includes an online component featuring several photographs and additional information. The codfish, pictured here, has thin struts of bone that make up the animal’s skull and allow for greater cranial flexibility. This flexible skull allows codfish to extend their jaws forward and rapidly snatch prey by protruding the pre-maxilla. They also rapidly expand the space in their mouth to create a negative pressure that sucks prey items into their jaws.
The American beaver has heterodont teeth that grow throughout its life. Beaver incisors are covered in a thick layer of enamel, with an orange tint from the presence of iron compounds, which makes them extremely durable.
The Javan rhino has 28 teeth (1 incisor, 3 premolars, and 3 molars in each half of the jaw). Less than 75 Javan rhinos exist today. They browse the tropical rainforest in Indonesia searching for vegetation.
According to the exhibit, omnivores like this grizzly bear have more generalist teeth that can be used to process a wide variety of foods. The incisors at the front can be used to slice through an animal but are also commonly used to graze grass. The menacing canines can be used to rip apart flesh or takedown squirrels and other small animals, but are also used to rip into logs to find grubs and ants. The molars and premolars can be used to crunch bones or crack nuts.
“Wisdom Teeth” was created by Fletcher Levy ’23 last summer as part of his work with the College of the Environment. “I was very inspired by the raw beauty of the osteology collections here at Wesleyan,” he said. “While working on this collection, I was struck by the diversity and beauty within the shape of teeth.” The exhibit was developed with the assistance of Professor of Biology Ann Burke; Assistant Professor of Archaeology Katherine Brunson; Harold T. Stearns Emerita Professor of Integrative Sciences Ellen Thomas; Andy Tan ’21; Yu Kai Tan MA ’21; facility manager Joel LaBella; instrument maker specialist Bruce Strickland; Caleb T. Winchester University Librarian Andrew White; and Science Library assistant Linda Hurteau. (Photos by Olivia Drake, Andy Tan and Yu Kai Tan)