Whale Teeth Amaze at Denver Museum of Nature and Science

At the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, you get a chance to get up-close and personal with the largest animals ever to live, including the world’s largest toothed predator. Sorry, T-Rex, although your dynamic pose in the entry is fun and thrilling, especially for kids, we’re talking about the sperm whale skeleton that serves as a major centerpiece in Whales: Giants of the Deep, and it’s truly an awesome sight.

Teeth Terrible and Terrific

dreamstime_xs_27257622Even for those accustomed to the large fin whale skeleton hanging in the museum’s atrium, the sperm whale is humbling. Not only because of its length–over 40 feet–and its closeness–you could almost touch it–but also because of its amazing teeth.

Sperm whales are the largest of the toothed whales, and their lower jaw houses dozens of long, conical teeth that are up to 8 inches in length and can weigh more than two pounds each. Even though there are no emergent teeth on the top jaw, it is still a fearsome armament for a predator. It seems that these teeth aren’t necessary to catching giant squid, the whale’s primary prey, because whales live long after they lose their teeth. The exhibit also showed what people did with whale’s teeth, and there are some good examples of scrimshaw and whale-tooth necklaces.

In addition to the sperm whale skeleton, the exhibit features many different examples of toothed whales, some with quite amazing tooth configurations. There is the ginkgo-toothed whale, which has a single tooth on each side of its jaw shaped like a ginkgo leaf. There is also an example of the spade-toothed whale, the world’s rarest whale. Although this whale was named in 1872, it wasn’t until 2012 that an intact specimen was seen.

But perhaps the strangest example of a toothed whale in the exhibit is the strap-toothed whale. These whales also have a single tooth on each side of their lower jaw, but this tooth grows up out of their mouths and curves up over the top of the head. This tooth prevents them from fully opening their jaws and limits the size of prey they can eat. The purpose of the tooth is unknown.

Baleen Behemoths

In addition to the toothed whales, you have the opportunity to explore what some whales have instead of teeth: baleen. Baleen is essentially a hairlike tissue that is made up of keratin, found in our own hair and fingernails, that the largest whales use to filter out their prey from the water. Whales take in a mouthful of water full of prey such as krill, then force the water out through the baleen. The baleen allows the water to pass, but traps the krill, which is then swallowed by the whale.

There is no blue whale skeleton in the exhibit, but to demonstrate the truly awesome size of the largest creature ever known on earth, the exhibit has a full-size replica of the whale’s heart. Lying on its side, the heart is as tall as the docent who was explaining about it–a medium-height man. The blood vessels are large enough that kids can crawl into the heart and play.

It is always nice when our museum brings such lively and informative exhibits to Denver. To learn more about whale’s teeth, people should definitely visit the Denver Museum of Nature and Science before this exhibit ends in February.

To learn more about your own teeth, please call 303-759-5652 for an appointment with a Denver dentist at Park Meadows Dental Care.