Whales Without Uvulas

This guy did not have a uvula. Photo: Fred Benko - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Central Library via Wikimedia Commons.
This guy did not have a uvula. Photo: Fred Benko – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Central Library via Wikimedia Commons.

 

by Poncie Rutsch

Dory and Marlin are trapped inside of a whale in the midst of their search for Marlin’s son Nemo. Marlin wants desperately to escape and slams himself into the whale’s baleen. And the whale does spew them out — after a brief Marlin vs Dory struggle…and some excellent footage of the whale’s oral anatomy, complete with a uvula.

There's the uvula! Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Cancer Institute web site via Wikimedia Commons.
There’s the uvula! Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Cancer Institute web site via Wikimedia Commons.

If you don’t know what a uvula is, that last sentence probably looked a bit questionable. A uvula is the chandelier of your mouth. It’s a little bit of flesh that hangs down from the roof of your mouth at the opening where your mouth becomes your throat. Say AH and you’ll see it.

[for quality whale uvula footage, fast forward to about 2:00]

But here’s the thing: whales don’t have uvulas. Only a few animals do. And scientists are still trying to figure out whether humans need uvulas in the first place.

In 1992, researchers searched the mouth cavities in a number of animals to see if there was even a trace of something that could have evolved into a uvula – almost like our tailbone shows we may have once had tails. They looked in dogs and horses and cows and apes and sheep. And this is what they found:

“Of all animals in the study, a small underdeveloped uvula was found only in two baboons. We found that the human uvula consists of an intermix of serous and seromucous glandular masses, muscular tissue, and large excretory canals…. Thus, the uvula is a highly sophisticated structure, capable of producing a large quantity of fluid saliva that can be excreted in a short time.”

The researchers also suggested that the uvula lubricates our vocal cords, and could be necessary to make some sounds that are critical for human language. Another camp of researchers disagrees though. They think that it’s just some vestigial trace of our ancestors (again, like your tailbone), without any essential purpose.

Their camp gets a little support from a type of surgery called uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (try saying that five times fast). The surgery doesn’t necessarily remove the entire uvula, but it removes parts of the soft flesh inside the mouth to reduce snoring and sleep apnea. Even those uvula-less patients appear to be communicating just fine.

Look around. Each of the Muppets has a felted uvula so that when they lean back to belt out songs you see a human-like mouth.  I bet you’ll see uvulas everywhere now…or at least in every animated movie.

So why bother stuffing uvulas into animals? It’s not like the uvula is an essential part of the human body, let alone one that seems quintessentially human. It would be easy to overlook, except it’s always there. It would seem like the animators just don’t know any better, but when was the first time you even noticed you HAD a uvula?

And on that note, it’s time for some obligatory Muppet uvulas.

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