Outdoors commentary: Teeth, in all their glory

Outdoors commentary: Teeth, in all their glory

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Consider your teeth. And how well they fit your lifestyle. You are a fairly average omnivore, capable of eating almost everything that is not poisonous. You’ve got incisors for gripping, canines for ripping and tearing and molars for chewing. You are ready for anything. Aside from the loss and subsequent replacement of baby teeth and the typical problems with wisdom teeth caused by an evolutionary shortening of human jawbones, your set of chompers is perfectly suited for your diet and lifestyle.

Just be glad you are not an opossum, because then you’d be saddled with taking care of 50 teeth, and you’d be ugly besides. Even worse, you could be a giant armadillo, with a mouthful of 100 teeth, which don’t have much to do, since the bulk of the animal’s diet consists of ants and termites. Worst of all, you might be a spinner dolphin, with a long jaw filled with 250 sharp teeth. Imagine the time you’d have to spend flossing. Spinner dolphins need those teeth to catch a wide variety of small fish and squid in between the spectacular spinning leaps for which they are famous.

What do you suppose the teeth of a giant panda bear look like? Although technically omnivores, pandas eat very little besides bamboo. Actually, the jaws and teeth of a panda look remarkably similar to those of an American black bear, which are famous for their willingness to eat anything that lives, once lived or may yet live. Panda molars get a lot more work on tough bamboo and as a result their jaw muscles are better exercised. The power of a giant panda’s bite far exceeds that of black bears, which live a soft gastronomic life filled with smoothies made of berries, grass, ground squirrels, termites and lots of rotten carrion.

Almost every species of mammal creates offspring whose early teeth cause intense difficulty for nursing mothers. Pigs are famous for the needle, or wolf teeth found on both sides of the infants’ jaws. Youngsters can be so hard on mama pigs that the females will refuse to nurse their young. As a result, pig owners have traditionally clipped those sharp baby teeth soon after they appear.

Wild animals often have trouble with their teeth as they age, and poor tooth condition is a major contributor to early death in many species. The same continues to be true in numerous human cultures, though not ours, because we generally have exceptional dental care.

Like many people my age, good dental habits were not a hallmark of my early years. I don’t think I ever heard the words fluoride or dental floss until I was in my 20s. Probably around the same time I learned of yogurt. My tooth condition as a young man was marginal at best, which led to a lot of drilling, sanding and polishing. It’s fair to say that dentists were much more fond of me than I was of them.

I found a good one here, though, and stuck with him for more than 30 years, until he recently retired. Not to say he was perfect, but I forgave him his small mistakes, like when he dropped a gold crown down into my throat and after much strange noise making, I swallowed it.

“Perhaps you could retrieve it,” he asked.

“Not a chance,” I said. “Make another.”

“Oh, OK.”

But I could not excuse his one great transgression, when, without asking he sanded the rough spot off my upper incisor.

“Now you’ll look like a movie star.”

It wasn’t until a couple days later that I realized he’d removed the most important part of my teeth, the jagged edge that let me clip off fishing leaders. Some things cannot be forgiven.

Pat Wray writes about the outdoors. He can be reached at patwray@comcast.net


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