The Narwhal: A whale of a tooth

Nov. 30, 2006
In December, the National Museum of Dentistry opens with a special exhibit for the holiday season.

Make a Narwhal holiday ornament at the National Museum of Dentistry (NMD) on Dec. 9-10. Free admission and activities for the entire family will mark the opening of The Narwhal: A Whale of a Tooth. The exhibition features a 13-foot, life-size model of a male Narwhal with its more-than-five-foot tusk that grows through the upper jaw and lip. Visitors will hear stories about the "Unicorn of the Sea" and will learn interesting facts about the purpose of this unusual tooth that has mystified scientists for decades. The exhibition will remain at NMD through August 2007.

The exhibition is based on the research of Dr. Martin Nweeia, principal investigator of Narwhal Tusk Research and a research associate in the Marine Mammal Program at the Smithsonian Institution. The most startling revelation produced by this research is that the Narwhal tusk's outer surface is covered with 10 million tiny tubules tunneling their way to the tusk's central nerve. Dr. Nweeia summarized the research team's amazement by saying, "Such a finding is startling and indeed surprised all of us who discovered it. Why would a tusk break the rules of normal development by exposing millions of sensory pathways that connect its nervous system to the frigid arctic environment?"

The National Museum of Dentistry exhibition's Narwhal model (Monodon monocerous or "one tooth"), documentary photographs, interviews, and educational facts bring to life this curious creature. Small for a whale, adults reach lengths of 13 to 15 feet and weigh between 2,200 and 3,500 pounds. The Narwhal is the only animal that grows an essentially straight tusk, which can achieve a length of nine feet. The Narwhal's home range includes the Atlantic portion of the Arctic Ocean and the Greenland Sea.

The exhibition is supported by a grant from Sunstar Americas.

The National Museum of Dentistry, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, is located at 31 South Greene Street in Baltimore, Md. Hours are Wednesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free on opening weekend.

The museum is a lively national center where visitors learn the importance of a healthy smile and are fascinated by the rich history of dentistry. The permanent exhibition ("32 Terrific Teeth") is home of celebrity smiles, Queen Victoria's gilded dental instruments, George Washington's not-so-wooden teeth, and the Tooth Jukebox, which plays vintage dental commercials. The museum on the campus of the University of Maryland in Baltimore. Admission after the opening weekend mentioned above is $4.50 for adults and $2.50 for youths, senior citizens, and students with ID. Children age 6 and under are free.