Nfld. & Labrador

Make no bones about it — this student loves studying seal teeth

Inspired by the TV show Bones, Jenn Wilkins looks at what seal teeth can tell us about past communities.

TV show inspires student to sink her teeth into researching seal choppers

Jenn Wilkins sits in her research lab at Memorial University. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

Undergraduate student Jenn Wilkins is living the academic summer of her dreams studying seal teeth, and the perhaps unlikely spark for it all was the American TV drama Bones

Wilkins says she started watching the show a couple of years ago while working at Memorial University's Ocean Sciences Centre in Logy Bay. 

She says the main character's job piqued her curiosity.  

"I realized that she was a forensic anthropologist and I realized that that was kind of something that someone could study." 

Environmental archaologist Meghan Burchell and her student, Wilkins, hold parts of seal skulls. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

Wilkins kept watching the show as she started looking into different courses in the archeology department. Eventually she took a coastal archeology course, and everything just clicked. 

"It combined my love for the ocean with my love for archeology and human history, and I found out that I could do a lot of research and combine the two passions I have," she said. 

'Reading a story from the ocean'

Wilkins is now in her fourth year of an archeology degree and has an Engineering Research Council of Canada Undergraduate Student Research Award to study seal teeth. 

"They have incremental growth structures so they grow on an annual basis. And if you count the lines within the tooth structure you can tell how old a seal was," said Wilkins. 

The discipline is called sclerochronology. 

I love it here and it's just what I want to do.- Jenn Wilkins

It looks at how micro-increments form in structures such as mollusk shells, coral and teeth over set periods of time. Researchers then tie them to specific environmental events. Once that's done, they can apply everything they've learned to archeological specimens. 

"Essentially, you're reading a story that the ocean is writing in the hard tissues of the material we're studying," said environmental archeologist Meghan Burchell.  

"We get information about how certain animal populations respond to long-term environmental trends but we also see the results of past human activities," she said. 

This is an image of a harp seal canine taken with a microscope by Wilkins.

Nothing like Bones but that's OK

Burchell says Wilkins's research can help play a part in understanding any coastal community that hunted seals. It can help researchers understand when and how animals were hunted and integrated into the diet. It can also help identify when places on the landscape were inhabited, and whether people moved seasonally, or stayed put year-round.

Wilkins said her research ended up being nothing like what she sees on Bones, but that doesn't matter. 

"People keep asking me about it, and I'm just like, 'I'm doing exactly what I want to do.' I love it here and it's just what I want to do," she said.

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