Afterbite: straight from the horse’s mouth

Categories: News and previews

A guide to the fascinating and visually striking exploration of the mouths of animals currently on display in the Market Hall

Words: Jane Levi
Images: Kate Anderson

Entering Professor Abigail Tucker’s offices is like entering a Natural History Museum meets Aladdin’s cave of teeth and skulls. “Just imagine if humans could re-grow their teeth,” she says with a broad smile, as she places the enormous skeleton of a shark’s upper jaw in my hands. I look at the huge sea creature’s skull, and see dozens of lethal-looking teeth lined up in rows behind one another, just waiting to grow in and replace the ones that have been used. “Why do we only have two sets of teeth, not multiple generations, when other animals can keep growing new teeth throughout their lives?” the professor of development and evolution asks. “Why and how are our ears connected to our jaws?”

Tucker and the researchers in her craniofacial development and stem cell biology department, perched on the 27th floor of the Guy’s Hospital tower overlooking Borough Market, spend all day asking just such questions, working at the cutting edge of evolutionary research to try to find answers that might help human health—even, perhaps, helping us to one day re-grow our own teeth.

Fascinating project
Now, as part of the King’s College London Science Gallery’s ‘Mouthy’ season, she has been working on Afterbite, a fascinating project realised in collaboration with two artists, Stephanie Bickford-Smith and Marcel Helmer, which is on display for a short period at Borough Market’s Market Hall.

Suspended from the ceiling are five models of animal skulls selected from across the animal kingdom. Constructed with great accuracy in elegantly understated strengthened cardboard, each one gives visitors the opportunity to literally put their heads inside the mouth of a lion, a horse, a crocodile, a turtle or a shark.

Once there, a colour image of the interior of the animal’s mouth, with teeth and intricately patterned rugae (the ridges on the roof of the mouth), is revealed in all its glory. By giving us a peek inside the extraordinarily varied and surprisingly beautiful mouths of other animals, this project is designed to give us some insight into what is going on in our own, how much we differ from other creatures, and why.

So much to know
“Mammals are the only animals that can chew,” Abigail tells me, pointing out that our flexible jaw joint gives us the ability to grind, whereas other animals can only move their jaws up and down. I had no idea there was so much I didn’t know about mouths, or that thinking about them could be so exciting, but Abigail is full of fascinating insights. Was I the only person interested in food who didn’t know we have taste buds on the roof of our mouth as well as on our tongue?

Professor Tucker will be in the Market Hall with her research lab at 2:30pm and 3:30pm on Friday 14th October, talking about the animal mouths on display in Afterbite. I can’t recommend highly enough a visit to hear her speak about these amazing models. You won’t think about your own mouth in quite the same way ever again.