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Bearing Teeth: Dental Records From Wolves Reflect Food Scarcity

Rolf Peterson
Michigan Technological University
A wolf from Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior over a dead moose.

What do elk populations, wolf teeth and saber tooth tigers have in common? They may provide clues to help today’s struggling large predators.

Researchers from Yellowstone National Park, the University of California, Los Angeles, and Michigan Technological University pored over hundreds of wolf skulls and teeth, and they foundthat when wolves have less food, they tend to have more dental problems.

When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, there were 600 elk to every wolf. Now it’s closer to 100 elk per wolf, according to the study, and the researchers found that wolves’ teeth now are showing more cracks and breaks than when they first came back to the park.

“Notably, the early and later Yellowstone samples differed significantly in the percentage of individuals with at least one broken tooth with and without including canine teeth,” the study stated, noting that about 38% of wolves had at least one broken tooth in the early group compared to 64% in a later group.

They hypothesize that it’s because the wolves risk biting into bones to get the most out of every kill.

“Broken teeth cannot heal, so most of the time, carnivores are not going to chew on bones and risk breaking their teeth unless they have to,” Van Valkenburgh, a UCLA professor who led the study, said in a press release.

Valkenburgh said the study help shed light on similar tooth fractures in fossils of massive Pleistocene carnivores like saber tooth tigers and dire wolves, and it could help researchers monitor the health and food availability for more endangered carnivores going forward.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Find reporter Madelyn Beck on Twitter @MadelynBeck8

Copyright 2019 Boise State Public Radio

Madelyn Beck was Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.

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