Vestigial Tooth Anatomy and Tusk Nomenclature for Monodon Monoceros

Anat Rec (Hoboken). 2012 Jun;295(6):1006-16. doi: 10.1002/ar.22449. Epub 2012 Mar 30.


Narwhal tusks, although well described and characterized within publications, are clouded by contradictory references, which refer to them as both incisors and canines. Vestigial teeth are briefly mentioned in the scientific literature with limited descriptions and no image renderings. This study first examines narwhal maxillary osteoanatomy to determine whether the erupted tusks are best described as incisiform or caniniform teeth. The study also offers evidence to support the evolutionary obsolescence of the vestigial teeth through anatomic, morphologic, and histologic descriptions. Examination of 131 skull samples, including 110 museum skull specimens and 21 harvested skulls, revealed the erupted tusks surrounded by maxillary bone over the entire length of their bone socket insertion, and are thus more accurately termed caniniform or canine teeth. The anatomy, morphology, and development of vestigial teeth in five skull samples are more fully described and documented. Vestigial tooth samples included 14 embedded pairs or individual teeth that were partially exposed or removed from the maxillary bone. Their location was posterior, ventral, and lateral to the tusks, although male vestigial teeth often exfoliate in the mouth lodging between the palatal tissue and underlying maxillary bone. Their myriad morphologies, sizes, and eruption patterns suggest that these teeth are no longer guided by function but rather by random germ cell differentiation and may eventually cease expression entirely. The conclusions reached are that the narwhal tusks are the expression of canine teeth and that vestigial teeth have no apparent functional characteristics and are following a pattern consistent with evolutionary obsolescence.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Male
  • Skull / anatomy & histology
  • Terminology as Topic
  • Tooth / anatomy & histology*
  • Whales / anatomy & histology*