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Keywords:

  • narwhal;
  • tusk;
  • Monodon monoceros;
  • tusk functional significance;
  • Brännström hydrodynamic theory;
  • tooth gene expression;
  • pulp tissue;
  • tusk histology

ABSTRACT

The erupted tusk of the narwhal exhibits sensory ability. The hypothesized sensory pathway begins with ocean water entering through cementum channels to a network of patent dentinal tubules extending from the dentinocementum junction to the inner pulpal wall. Circumpulpal sensory structures then signal pulpal nerves terminating near the base of the tusk. The maxillary division of the fifth cranial nerve then transmits this sensory information to the brain. This sensory pathway was first described in published results of patent dentinal tubules, and evidence from dissection of tusk nerve connection via the maxillary division of the fifth cranial nerve to the brain. New evidence presented here indicates that the patent dentinal tubules communicate with open channels through a porous cementum from the ocean environment. The ability of pulpal tissue to react to external stimuli is supported by immunohistochemical detection of neuronal markers in the pulp and gene expression of pulpal sensory nerve tissue. Final confirmation of sensory ability is demonstrated by significant changes in heart rate when alternating solutions of high-salt and fresh water are exposed to the external tusk surface. Additional supporting information for function includes new observations of dentinal tubule networks evident in unerupted tusks, female erupted tusks, and vestigial teeth. New findings of sexual foraging divergence documented by stable isotope and fatty acid results add to the discussion of the functional significance of the narwhal tusk. The combined evidence suggests multiple tusk functions may have driven the tooth organ system's evolutionary development and persistence. Anat Rec, 297:599–617, 2014. © 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.