When researchers in the University at Buffalo Department of Pathology and Animal Sciences decided to figure out what causes the jaw to grow and change over time, they were expecting the answer to be the long-held theory that it was the size and type of the animal’s prey that drove these evolutionary changes. But instead what the research team found was that the animal’s diet likely had nothing to do with it. So, what is responsible for these changes – and how can the answer help modern-day humans treat an increasingly common problem?
According to the study’s findings, which were published in the August 2018 issue of PLOS ONE, the size of the jaw has evolved to accommodate the overall size of the animal – not its prey. Researcher Aleksander Wysocki believes this is because larger carnivores are already larger than their prey and don’t need as much help breaking down what they eat.
The study also yielded some insight into a condition that affects millions of Americans each year: temporomandibular joint disorder, or TMJ disorder.
“Because animals use the temporomandibular joint to catch and eat their prey, the researchers studied it extremely closely, and hope to use that data to learn more about TMJ disorder, too,” says Dr. Alexandra George, a dentist from Wexford, Pennsylvania. George treats patients with TMJ disorder using a specialized form of dentistry called neuromuscular orthodontics. Neuromuscular orthodontics hold the teeth in an ideal position to prevent the temporomandibular joint from coming out of alignment.
According to George, the study appeared to yield more questions than answers in terms of the temporomandibular joint, but this new research may help encourage researchers to take a closer look at this deeply complex joint – and that would truly be a huge relief to millions of TMJ disorder sufferers, George says.