Research on dolphin teeth may hold vital information on ocean pollution

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Research on dolphin teeth may hold vital information on ocean pollution

Teeth from bottlenose dolphins (above) are being used by researchers in New Zealand to track the levels of pollution in the ocean. (Photograph: Dr Carolina Loch/Otago University)

Tue. 10. April 2018


DUNEDIN, New Zealand: Using teeth to gather data on ocean pollution might seem like an unlikely method—however, when the teeth involved are those of dolphins, then the idea might not seem so improbable. In new research out of New Zealand, scientists from the dental faculty at the University of Otago are now doing exactly that to find the impact industry is having on one of the most important ecosystems on the planet.

The pilot study, being run by Dr Carolina Loch from the Department of Oral Sciences, is looking specifically at metal contaminants. Loch believes that the data recovered could be helpful in measuring the impact industries like mining has on the ocean.

Contaminants in marine environments are a particular health risk for humans and other animals, as they are absorbed into teeth and bones. “One of the key issues is that the wastewater from mining and city pollution goes back into the marine environment, and it comes back to us when we consume seafood,” said Loch.

The teeth being used are from bottlenose dolphins, since they do not migrate, and these have been provided by the archival material of Massey University in New Zealand and the South Australian Museum in Adelaide. Dolphin teeth reliably record contamination because toxic metals and trace elements from their diet are incorporated into enamel and dentine throughout their life. Because the enamel and dentine form in layers like the rings in a tree, Loch hopes that by using laser spectroscopy she will be able to reveal the toxic metal bioaccumulation over the course of the dolphin’s life.

Due to the fact that bottlenose dolphins do not migrate, Loch and her colleagues from Massey University in Auckland, the South Australian Museum and Macquarie University in Sydney in Australia are able to more accurately compare metal exposure in teeth from supposedly low-polluted areas in New Zealand to a high metal exposure area in South Australia. According to Loch, she expects that high concentrations of toxic metals in teeth will be correlated with increased industrial contamination, while decreased levels will be in areas of improved environmental practices.

If successful, the Otago researchers aim to conduct the research on a larger scale and are applying for further funding to enable this. Results are expected at the end of the year.

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