Episode 107 – Tusks

Listen to Episode 107 on PodBean, YouTube, Spotify, or choose your own option!

Teeth taken to the extreme! From mammoths to warthogs to walruses to whales, in this episode we discuss the selective pressures, functions, diversity, and mysteries in the evolution of Tusks.

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One of the oldest known Megatherium ground sloths found in Argentina.

My What Big Teeth You Have

What comes to mind when you think of a tusk? Elephants? Warthogs? Whales? This feature – huge teeth repurposed as tools for various uses – seems to be pretty popular, as it’s popped up several times in mammal evolution.

Top left: Columbian mammoth by WolfmanSF / CC BY-SA 3.0
Top right: Babirusa skull by Didier Descouens / CC BY-SA 4.0

Bottom left: Muntjac (barking deer) skull by Ryan Somma / CC BY-SA 2.0
Bottom right: Narwhal skeleton by Pcornill / CC BY-SA 4.0

There isn’t really a standard definition for what makes something a “tusk” as opposed to a “fang” or just a “pretty big tooth.” But there are some features that are generally shared across the various things we call tusks: they’re usually large anterior teeth (incisors or canines); they often grow continuously; they tend to stick out of the mouth when it’s closed; and they’re generally used as tools beyond just biting things, such as displaying or digging. Of course there are exceptions: hippo teeth are often called tusks despite not sharing all of these features, and naked mole rat teeth are not called tusks even though they’re basically tusks.

The uses of tusks are many and varied. It’s very common for tusks to be sexually dimorphic, being smaller or absent in females, and as you might expect, they’re often used in male combat or display. We see this in hogs, elephants, “fanged deer,” and more. Elephants also commonly use their tusks to modify their environment, clearing vegetation or mining for minerals; walrus tusks are employed, among other uses, to help them break holes in ice or to pull themselves up out of the water; and then there are some truly strange tusks that have inspired lots of discussion, such as those of babirusas and narwhals.

Tusks come in many forms for many uses.
Left: Elephants use their tusks to scrape bark off trees. Image by Andrew Shiva / CC BY-SA 4.0
Right: Like many tuskers, babirusas use their tusks for combat. Image by Meldy Tamenge / CC BY-SA 4.0

Tusks Through Time

Unsurprisingly, given how much paleontologists love teeth, tusks are well-known in the fossil record, mostly from ancient relatives of living tusked animals. Examples include the enormous tusks of mammoths, the shovel-shaped tusks of gomphotheres, and the varied tusks of ancient walruses. There are also the dicynodonts, extinct mammal cousins whose tusks sat on either side of their beaks, plus the enormous rodent Josephoartigasia, which may have used its teeth like tusks. Some have even argued that certain large teeth in other animals such as fish and even theropod dinosaurs like Herrerrasaurus could possibly count as tusks.

When it comes to research, tusks can be very handy. Since they grow throughout the life of an animal, they can serve as a record of that animal’s life, retaining chemical and physical signatures of the animal’s diet and migratory habits. Tusks can also be useful in identifying the sex of an ancient animal, and there’s even some evidence that tusk shape might relate to an animal’s environment.

Peccaries even use their tusks for communication, clacking them together to make loud snapping sounds.

And of course, humans have a long history with tusks. Not only have we collected them for years for practical and artistic purposes, but we’ve also taken tusk-collection to the extreme in the form of poaching; such an extreme, in fact, that our habits seem to be driving the evolution of tusk reduction in elephants.

Learn More

If you enjoyed this topic and want more like it, check out these related episodes:

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3 thoughts on “Episode 107 – Tusks

  1. djmcbratney February 21, 2021 / 4:09 am

    How much would it bother you if future hippos developed spiral external tusks from both sets of teeth … but only on the left side = ]


  2. GÑpfrslo Ejioup October 2, 2022 / 8:13 am

    We haven’t found more uses for Narwhal tusks because they keep using Pass Without Trace


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