Firearms deer season starts next week, so I get to rerun this piece from 2019. (I was reminded of it because Vermont just sent out a notice asking hunters to help collect deer teeth for their assessment program.)
When it comes to corporate bragging points, it’s hard to beat the one that Matson’s Lab in rural Montana flaunts on its website: “2,546,500 teeth analyzed.”
And not just any teeth. That figure includes an annual tally of 125 bobcat canines, 500 deer incisors, 100 moose incisors and 800 bear premolars from New Hampshire, all removed by biologists or hunters from dead animals.
One tooth is taken from every bear and every moose killed by a hunter and brought to a state check station and from a selection of deer. There’s no New Hampshire hunting season for bobcats, so those teeth come from roadkill animals.
Along with such things as the animal’s weight, length and general appearance, sometimes including a quick necropsy, taking the teeth is part of data collection that helps biologists judge the health of certain game species. We’ve been mailing them to Montana for decades.
“For bear, we’ve been sending teeth out there since at least 1983,” said Kent Gustafson, wildlife biologist for New Hampshire Fish and Game. “We used to do our own moose teeth when the hunt started in 1988, but we decided to send them out, too.”
As explained by Arthur Stephens, Matson’s lab manager, here’s what happens to those canines and molars when they arrive in Montana: “We decalcify them, get really thin sections – standard histology practice – mount them on a (microscope) slide, stain them, and examine them, to give a precise age estimate.”
Many animals deposit layers of a substance called cementum in their teeth as they grow, which can create annual layers that are somewhat similar to growth rings in a tree. Experienced lab techs can count those rings and tell how old animals are, a vital piece of information to combine with other information gathered from dead animals, such as weight, when biologists determine the health of a wildlife species.
“It doesn’t help to know if a moose weighs 500 pounds without the age. Is it a really big calf or a tiny old moose?” said Gustafson. “Without knowing the age of what you’re dealing with, it’s difficult to assess the other biological data you’re collecting.”
The data can also be used to estimate survival rates through a mathematical process known as life table analysis, which looks at the frequency of animals in various age classes and estimates mortality rates.
Stephens said the lab can often tell the reproductive history of teeth from female black bears, which usually have cubs every other year. The stress of raising cubs means they deposit less cementum in their teeth, so an alternating annual pattern can give an indication of how often the females have given birth.
Northern female bears, that is. This doesn’t work so well on bears in hotter areas.
“There has been a scientific paper studying this, but we think that the hard (northern) winters make the patterns easier for us to read. When the bear undergoes that period of (winter) stress, not as much cementum is getting deposited. Whereas in the south, especially in Florida, the Carolinas, they don’t have that stress; they don’t lay down a well-defined annular pattern,” said Stephens.
This is all well and good, of course, but why send our teeth all the way out to a lab in a town with the unlikely name of Manhattan, Montana?
Lack of good alternatives.
Matson’s Lab is “the only known commercial tooth-processing laboratory in the United States,” said Fish and Game Director Glenn Normandeau in his pitch to the Executive Council for money to support the project. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Federal Aid Grant administrators have previously advised us that in order to maintain the integrity of our long-term database … They strongly prefer that we continue to use Matson’s Laboratory.”
The council unanimously approved the $8,500 contract.
Matson’s was established in 1969 by a University of Montana grad student whose original idea was to sell prepared microscope slides to high school science classes and who “pivoted” (to give the trendy biz term) to tooth analysis when the first plan flopped. It has continued ever since, the classic case of a small company – 10 employees, including the owner – that carves out a successful niche.
“We expect to do about 115,000 teeth this year,” said Stephens. They will create stained slides of teeth from all sorts of “cloven-hoofed mammals” including deer and elk as well as small carnivores like mink and fisher and big ones like grizzly bears and mountain lions.
They also perform a specialized service called tetracycline biomarker analysis, used mostly to determine whether certain species are eating bait put out for control of diseases like rabies.
Most Matson’s customers are state wildlife agencies that, like New Hampshire, need age data to keep track of major game species. Private hunting clubs and ranches also use the service, as does the occasional private hunter.
“Somebody shot a buck on grandpa’s property and wants to know how old it was,” is how Stephens describes those last customers.
The service is pretty cheap: A minimum of $75 for up to five teeth, with each extra one costing $10 or less, depending on the total number. If you send in the whole jaw rather than the separate teeth you’ll have to pay an extra “extraction fee.”
Stephens said hunters and the occasional school group tours the lab, which is not too far from the city of Bozeman. If you’re planning on a visit, expect a dental angle to the entertainment.
“A couple of the techs, they kind of like teeth. One lady started making jewelry with them,” said Stephens. “Last year we did a Halloween open house – guess how many bobcat teeth are in the jar, that kind of thing.”