Postponed: Honors College Lecture to Look at Teeth as the Legacy of Evolution

Postponed: Honors College Lecture to Look at Teeth as the Legacy of Evolution
Photo by Shelby Gill

Postponed: The following lecture has been delayed, and a new date and time will be released soon.

Paleoanthropologist Peter Ungar brings a half-billion-year perspective to teeth and the stories they tell about diet, climate and evolution. “We hold in our mouths the legacy of evolution,” Ungar said. “Teeth are the hardest, strongest structures in the body. They preserve for millions of years. They tell the story of evolution.” 

Ungar will present a lecture titled “Teeth.” All on campus and in the community are invited to the lecture, which draws on material from his book Evolution’s Bite

Please fill out this online interest form to attend the lecture. The lecture previews "Teeth," the Honors College Signature Seminar that Ungar will lead next fall.  

The Biospheric Buffet

Students will not only learn about teeth; they will experience evolution through anecdotes from Ungar’s extensive travel, research and friends. 

“The story is told from my perspective as a researcher,” Ungar said. “And we look over the shoulders of my friends as they make their discoveries. It's not simply something nebulous out there in textbooks.” 

Ungar's course begins by looking at the most significant influence on the development of teeth: climate change. He explains changes in habitat result from both the constant movement of tectonic plates and shifts in Earth’s pattern of orbit around the Sun. 

Moving plates create mountain ranges and rifts, while changes in the distance and tilt of the Earth turns deserts into forests. As the environment shifts, different foods become available. 

“The buffet items change,” Ungar notes, explaining that the changing climate determines the variety of foods, and the foods that animals choose determines their relationship to their surroundings. The great indicator of planet-altering change is teeth, which evolve with diet. 

“I think teeth present us an example of what Darwin called ‘endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful,’” Ungar said. “Teeth give us a perfect example of evolution and how it works. Within that context, we understand how we came to be the way we are today.” 

Analyzing the Arctic

Ungar's course will touch on his own recent teeth research, which took him literally to the top of the world as he was stationed in the Arctic studying reindeer teeth at the Natural Resources Institute Finland. The area’s specimens give unique insight into the impact of climate change.

“The Arctic is changing,” Ungar said. He began research in the North because it is warming up to four times faster than the rest of the planet, and also, it is a much simpler system to study. There are fewer species, and the changes are much more obvious. 

He and his team are developing tools to help them see “how our changing world is leading these animals to choose different diets.” The team analyzes the condition of reindeer teeth to understand how the changing climate affects resources and the stress on the animal.

Ungar has been working with honors students for more than 20 years. Recently, he took two honors students to the Arctic to study reindeer teeth: Caroline Groves, who is studying biology with a focus on pre-dentistry, and Harrison Lowe, who is studying anthropology.

Like his research team, Ungar underlines that his Signature Seminar “weaves together a truly interdisciplinary story.” The course has elements of earth system science, dentistry, archaeology, paleontology, agriculture, physics, chemistry and social sciences. “I think most innovation in science comes at the boundaries of traditional disciplines,” he said.

About Peter Ungar

Ungar is a Distinguished Professor of anthropology  in the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Environmental Dynamics Ph.D. Program, an interdisciplinary field overseen by the Graduate School. He is also an Honorary Professorial Research Fellow of the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. 

Ungar is the first U of A faculty member to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is also a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Johns Hopkins Society of Scholars and the U of A Teaching Academy. Ungar has written or coauthored more than 200 scientific papers on ecology and evolution for books and journals including ScienceNatureProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

He has also edited or co-edited three volumes focusing on the evolution of human diet, and his academic book, Mammal Teeth: Origin, Evolution, and Diversity (Johns Hopkins, 2010 ), won the PROSE Award from the Association of American Publishers for best book in the biological sciences. His latest book is a popular science work titled Teeth: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2014).  

Ungar’s work has been featured in documentaries on the Discovery Channel, the Science Channel, BBC Television and others. He has given dozens of invited talks and keynote addresses at venues around the world, including the Royal Society in London, the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Signature Seminars Explore Diverse Topics

Teeth is one of three Honors College Signature Seminars scheduled for spring 2023. Other topics to be explored include:

  • Bad Medicine, to be taught by Tricia Starks, professor of history
  • Good Medicine, to be taught by Jamie Baum, director of the Center for Human Nutrition and associate professor in the Department of Food Science, and Erin Howie Hickey, associate professor of exercise science in the Department of Health, Human Performance and Recreation.

Deans of each college may nominate professors to participate in this program, and those who are selected to teach will become Dean’s Fellows in the Honors College.    

Honors students must apply to participate, and those selected will be designated Dean’s Signature Scholars. 

About the Honors College: The University of Arkansas Honors College was established in 2002 and brings together high-achieving undergraduate students and the university’s top professors to share transformative learning experiences. Each year the Honors College awards up to 90 freshman fellowships that provide $80,000 over four years, and more than $1 million in undergraduate research and study abroad grants. The Honors College is nationally recognized for the high caliber of students it admits and graduates. Honors students enjoy small, in-depth classes, and programs are offered in all disciplines, tailored to students’ academic interests, with interdisciplinary collaborations encouraged. All Honors College graduates have engaged in mentored research.

About the University of Arkansas: As Arkansas' flagship institution, the U of A provides an internationally competitive education in more than 200 academic programs. Founded in 1871, the U of A contributes more than $2.2 billion to Arkansas’ economy through the teaching of new knowledge and skills, entrepreneurship and job development, discovery through research and creative activity while also providing training for professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the U of A among the few U.S. colleges and universities with the highest level of research activity. U.S. News & World Report ranks the U of A among the top public universities in the nation. See how the U of A works to build a better world at Arkansas Research News.


Peter Ungar, distinguished professor of anthropology
Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences

Shelby Gill, director of communications
Honors College


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