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April 29, 2021

Ware & Tare

Our teeth have stories to tell -- if we like sweets, if we floss -- so a U.S. research team used dental checkups on Arctic foxes to learn what they eat and why -- and why it matters as the Arctic warms.

Credit: National Science Foundation

Ware & Tare

Hi, I'm Mo with The Discovery Files, from NSF -- the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Dentists have this way of knowing how much candy we eat, if we sucked our thumb as a child, and if we floss after every meal. How do they do that?

Well, self-proclaimed tooth aficionado from the University of Arkansas, Dr. Peter Ungar, knows how! In this study, he focused on Artic animals as part of a larger study where researchers observed the varying affects of climate conditions in the Arctic, Dr. Ungar and his team set out to determine the diets of Arctic foxes in Russia's Yamal Peninsula, by looking at the breakage and pitting in their teeth.

The team compared teeth of Arctic foxes who live in the northern peninsula to the teeth of those in the southern peninsula. The analysis indicated foxes in both locations dined on their preferred smaller prey of rodents like lemmings and field mice, during rodent rich years.

But during the years with fewer rodents, in the southern peninsula, the foxes adapted to conditions by depending on larger prey, including wild birds and hares, like jackrabbits. And in the north, the foxes scavenged on reindeer carcasses.

This data suggests that dental check-ups for Arctic wildlife can provide insights into how vulnerable animals adapt and obtain food in warming and extreme Arctic weather. Which can deepen our understanding of climate change.

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