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.

One-Way Ticket to Mars

By Poncie Rutsch
BU News Service

It’s official: applications for the esteemed colonial voyage to Mars are now competitive. And your chances of getting picked are worse than your chances at getting into every Ivy League college…and also slightly worse than getting struck by lighting in your lifetime.

That’s right. Last year, Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp announced his plan to set up a colony on Mars by 2023. This year, they’re picking a total of 24 people to spend the next ten years training for said journey.

Four people from those 24 will embark on a seven-month journey in 2022. They’ll arrive at Mars in 2023, land in a small vehicle and leave the brunt of their ship in space (too heavy to land). They’ll live in inflatable dwellings with some air and food supplies sent over in advance.

Lansdorp and company will choose location of the settlement based on how much ice there is in the soil. They’ll melt this ice for water and break it apart via electrolysis for oxygen to breathe.

Of course, the documentation starts once Lansdorp and his team start training these 24 people. Reality TV show, 24/7/365. Of course, it won’t exactly be “live” since the delay between Mars and earth is anywhere from 3 to 22 minutes. Supposedly, this TV publicity will pay for most of the funding.

Regarding that 22-minute delay, that means if any sort of emergency takes place, Houston won’t know there’s a problem for 22 minutes. Sending help (via rocketship, of course) will take six months.

Oh yeah, but once you go, you can’t come back. Also, no skyping or phone calls. Only emails, texts, and the occasional video voicemail. Mind you, the delay would make a live conversation a little ridiculous.

Honestly, I don’t understand how 200,000 people have signed up. It’s one thing to go to space but it’s another to go to space and never return. It’s giving up everyone you’ve ever known. But then again, people hide out in Antarctica all the time, so I’m just the wrong demographic.

Mars One thought about this:

“However, there are individuals for whom traveling to Mars has been a dream for their entire life. They relish the challenge. Not unlike the ancient Chinese, Micronesians, and untold Africans, the Vikings and famed explorers of Old World Europe, who left everything behind to spend the majority of their lives at sea, a one-way mission to Mars is about exploring a new world and the opportunity to conduct the most revolutionary research ever conceived, to build a new home for humans on another planet.”

The deeper question throughout all this though is why do we do it? Do we do it to learn, or are we just doing it because we can?

Space research is important, but in order to research, we don’t necessarily have to go there ourselves. The Mars rovers have shown tremendous success – and we don’t have to feed them on the other side.

Perhaps someday it will be critical to repopulate Mars; when we destroy our own planet, for example. But until then, this seems like a classic case of science because we can…and really expensive science because we can, at that.

Needless to say, I’ll be glued to the live stream.

Mars road map of the future. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user Bruce Irving.
Mars road map of the future. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user Bruce Irving.