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Health

Is Bleaching Next? Whales Look at Teeth When Picking Mates

DiscoblogBy Boonsri DickinsonDecember 18, 2008 5:50 AM

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Humans aren't the only species that use pearly whites to judge the fitness of a mate: Apparently teeth are also important to a certain species of whales. The beaked whales have earned the reputation as the most bizarre whales in the ocean, spending the majority of their lives foraging for food and living in seclusion. For years, scientists have wondered why these strange whales have tusks, especially since it hinders their bite. It turns out these seeming-unnecessary teeth are important for mating—a discovery that marks the first time scientists have found a secondary sexual characteristic (like antlers) that shaped evolution in a marine mammal. The tusks, grown externally and only in males, aren't used for eating, but are useful for scratching (and grabbing the attention) of potential mates. Interestingly, the size and appearance of these tusks varies a good deal throughout the 21 species of beaked whales. An Australian researcher at the University of New South Wales checked the DNA of 14 beaked whale species, and created a family tree to figure what caused speciation. In contrast to previous theories that tooth shape evolved due to geographic isolation, the newest study shows that the tusks drove species separation. In other words, the males with the teeth that are the most ideal for that particular species were seen as the best mates by females. Now for the next question: Does bad teeth give Brits an evolutionary advantage? Related: RB: Whales Battle U.S. Military…and (Probably) Lose Disco: Say What? Japanese Whaling Ships Accuse Animal Planet of Ecoterrorism Disco: After 4,500 Whale Killings, Japanese Publish Their Research Disco: Whales’ Ragged Fins Could Help Us Make Greener Fans

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