Saturday, January 3, 2009

Elephants enjoy a nice "Christmas Treet"

Nature is full of examples of thinking "win-win" with mutualistic symbiotic relationships, such as that of the rhinoceros and the tickbird (also known as an oxpecker, hehehe) or the realtionship between sea anenomes and clown fish. Some of these relationships involve teeth - think of the crocodile and the little bird known as a "plover."

This week I discovered yet another one of natures beautiful mutualistic symbiotic relationships: the Elephant and the post-holiday German family. German zookeepers have a program that helps families dispose of their Christmas trees and at the same time gives the local elephants a special holiday treat. According to the zookeepers, the pine trees are not only a delicacy, but they help clean the elephants' teeth. Each elephant eats up to three Christmas trees per day. A few photos and descriptions can be found at the China Daily.

Pop quiz: How many sets of teeth does an elephant have during its lifetime? The answer can be found after this picture I took during my trip to the zoo last summer.

If you guessed six, step forward and claim your prize! Humans, like most mammals, are diphyodont, meaning we have two sets of teeth. Elephants are unique among mammals. Although they have only one set of tusks, the four large molars used for grinding plants are continually worn down and replaced up to six times throughout the elephant's life. In full-grown elephants, each molar can weigh as much as 9 lbs! Gadzooks! If you had any ambitions to do elephant dentistry, you'd better get some bigger burs. Here I am posing with one of the giant molars. Notice the many roots:

Next time an endo procedure isn't going so well, just remind yourself it could be worse.


Stephanie said...

Are Christmas Trees good for human teeth???

Benji said...

I haven't read any studies on it. Maybe some ambitious young dental student can take on the research project!