What can a New Zealand reptile tell us about false teeth?

Using a moving 3D computer model based on the skull and teeth of a New Zealand reptile called tuatara, a BBSRC-funded team from the University of Hull, University College London and the Hull York Medical School has revealed how damage to dental implants and jaw joints may be prevented by sophisticated interplay between our jaws, muscles and brain. This research will appear in a future edition of the Journal of Biomechanics.

The tuatara is a lizard-like reptile that has iconic status in its homeland of New Zealand because its ancestors were widespread at the time of the dinosaurs. Unlike mammals and crocodiles which have teeth held in sockets by a flexible ligament, tuatara have teeth that are fused to their jaw bone – they have no ligament, much like modern dental implants.”

BBSRC postdoctoral fellow Dr Neil Curtis from the University of Hull said “Humans and many other animals prevent damage to their teeth and jaws when eating because the ligament that holds each tooth in place also feeds back to the brain to warn against biting too hard.”

Dr Marc Jones from University College London, also a BBSRC postdoctoral fellow, added “In the sugar-rich western world many people end up losing their teeth and have to live with dentures or dental implants instead. They’ve also lost the periodontal ligament that would attach their teeth so we wanted to know how their brains can tell what’s going on when they are eating.”

The team has created a 3-D computer model of the skull of the tuatara to investigate the feedback that occurs between the jaw joints and muscles in a creature that lacks periodontal ligaments.

“Tuatara live happily for over 60 years in the wild without replacing their teeth because they have the ability to unconsciously measure the forces in their jaw joint and adjust the strength of the jaw muscle contractions accordingly”, said Dr Curtis.

Although this explains why tuatara and people with false teeth manage not to break their teeth and don’t end up with jaw joint disorders, it is still clear that having a periodontal ligament is very useful, in particular for fine tuning chewing movements. This may explain why it has evolved independently in the ancestors of mammals, crocodiles, dinosaurs, and even some fish.

There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that people with implants and dentures may make food choices related to their lack of periodontal ligament. However, the tuatara pursues a broad diet on the islands where they live including beetles, spiders, snails, frogs and occasionally young seabirds.

Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive said “To support the extension of health and wellbeing into old age, it is vital that we appreciate how we as human beings have developed our extraordinary ability to adapt to adverse situations. This work allows us to understand some of the complexities of the feedback and responses occurring in healthy human bodies and brains. It is impossible in evolution to predict future innovations such as dental implants and yet this research indicates a level of redundancy in our biology that opens opportunities to support long term health and wellbeing.”


Dr Neil Curtis

[email protected]

BBSRC External Relations

Nancy Mendoza, Tel: 01793 413355, Mobile: 07785 710 536, email: [email protected]

Tracey Jewitt, Tel: 01793 414 694, email: [email protected]

Mike Davies, Tel: 01793 442 042, email: [email protected]

Matt Goode, Tel: 01793 413299, Mobile: 07766 423 372, email: [email protected]


A social media press release is available here: http://pitch.pe/85764


Images and video are available here: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/media/releases/2010/100907-pr-what-can-a-reptile-tell-us.aspx

For access to B-roll video please contact BBSRC External Relations (contact details above)

Video footage of tuatara is Courtesy of Chester Zoo and was recorded by Dr Neil Curtis, University of Hull and Dr Marc Jones, University College London.

An early online edition of the research paper is available from the Journal of Biomechanics: “Feedback control from the jaw joints during biting: An investigation of the reptile Sphenodon using multibody modelling”, N. Curtis, M.E.H. Jones, S.E. Evans, P. O’Higgins, M.J. Fagan,

Journal of Biomechanics, DOI: 10.1016/j.jbiomech.2010.08.001


For more information about the work of the research team see: www.hull.ac.uk/mbe and http://www.cdb.ucl.ac.uk/research/evans/bbsrc_project.shtml


BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £470 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

The Babraham Institute, Institute for Animal Health, Institute for Biological, Environmental and Rural Studies (Aberystwyth University), Institute of Food Research, John Innes Centre, The Genome Analysis Centre, The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh) and Rothamsted Research. The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

For more information see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

About UCL

Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. UCL is the fourth-ranked university in the 2009 THES-QS World University Rankings. UCL alumni include Marie Stopes, Jonathan Dimbleby, Lord Woolf, Alexander Graham Bell, and members of the band Coldplay. UCL currently has over 12,000 undergraduate and 8,000 postgraduate students. Its annual income is over £600 million.

About the University of Hull

The University of Hull is well known for the discovery of liquid crystals, for which the Department of Chemistry received the Queen’s Award for Technological Achievement. Philip Larkin, one of the greatest English poets of the twentieth century, was the University’s librarian for 30 years and he wrote some of his most celebrated works at the University. Famous alumni include: Lord Dearing, Roger McGough CBE, John McCarthy and Anthony Minghella.

In the 2008 national Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), 80% of the University’s research was judged to be of an international standard in terms of originality, significance and rigour. The National Student Survey (NSS) consistently ranks the University in the top ten mainstream English Universities.
For more information visit: www.hull.ac.uk

Chester Zoo

Video footage of tuatara is Courtesy of Chester Zoo and was recorded by Dr Neil Curtis, University of Hull and Dr Marc Jones, University College London.

Chester Zoo is a registered conservation charity and supports project around the world and closer to home in Cheshire. Welcoming 1.4 million visitors a year, it is the largest zoo in the UK; home to 7000 animals, 400 different species, many of which are endangered.

Substack subscription form sign up
The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.