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Sea Urchins Go to the Dentist, Too

posted: 11/20/15
by: Danny Clemens

If you think that humans are the only ones who have to worry about dental care, think again. A pretty diverse group of animals has to put effort into maintaining their pearly whites, including a sea urchin that recently went under the knife at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

The aquatic creatures are equipped with five calcareous plates that support their teeth. With the help of their beak-like mouths, the sea urchins scrape algae right off of rocks and grind up mussels, a process intended to keep their teeth ground down.

"If they aren't chewing properly and evenly over all of their dental surfaces, then they can develop growth abnormalities that can affect how they ingest their food. In severe cases, it can actually keep them from eating and eventually cause them to starve to death," Dr. Colin McDermott, a Helen Swearer Fellow in Aquarium Science and Veterinary Medicine at the National Aquarium, tells Discovery.

Earlier this month, McDermott used a rotary tool to lend a helping hand to an urchin with some unfortunately overgrown chompers:

 

"Most of the 'dental care' that we perform is by providing appropriate food items to help them wear down their teeth appropriately, as a preventative measure. However, in some cases these animals can develop abnormal tooth growth, and need some corrective dental care," he explains.

But what becomes of an urchin in the wild with overgrown teeth? McDermott explains that the animal's tooth would hopefully break off on its own, allowing the remaining piece of tooth to grow back normally.

"In some cases, it may be that the damage is bad enough that they are unable to ingest their food and they would ultimately starve or become weak and easy prey for predators," he adds.

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