Toothless in The Galápagos – A Lesson in Adaptation

by Peter Birek

Weighting over 400 kilograms, the Galápagos tortoise1 lumbers slowly above the lush grass, grabs the Azolla (mosquito, duckweed, water-fern and fairy moss) with its fully edentulous jaws (yes that’s right – no teeth for these creatures), squishes out the moisture and swallows the bolus to be slowly digested. Although Charles Darwin had a more-detailed explanation (The Scientific Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection2 published in his book “On the Origin of Species” in 1859), to me it is a great example of Adaptation.3

Having had the privilege of a visit the Galápagos Islands, between the many clicks of my camera (yes, I am a famous photographer, for now, if only in my mind) I have been thinking about my other passion, dentistry, in an ever- changing environment so familiar to most of our readers.

Suddenly, it appeared to me that most changes in dentistry result as a reaction from us dentists as we adapt our practices to the new environment. Those who are best in adapting remain successful and thus survive; others sink. Indeed, adaptation is the way to survive.

After a few more days of hopping islands, I realized that adaptation3 is only a RESPONSE to a change that has already occurred – simply reactive. This modus operandi suggests a lack of perception of the future – the changes governed by the development in the art of science of dentistry and the regulations that are thrust upon us by our Royal Colleges and the government.

You cannot expect our tortoise, or the famous Galépagos Finches to do anything but adapt. But how about us, the homo (dental) sapiens? After all we have superior brains and yes, many teeth for that matter! Such lack of foresight robs us from taking proactive measures. Perhaps a better way to survive and prosper in today’s changing world is to anticipate the changes to come and “adapt” a priori.

So here is the homework for us dentists who inhabit this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world (VUCA – for more on it please read the article by Peter C. Fritz in this issue).

List the changes that have occurred in dentistry during the last decade or any period to which you have been witness. Then, in a corresponding column, write the adaptations that were imposed on you by the changes that had already occurred.

On a separate sheet, list all the changes that you anticipate in the future based on your deductive thinking. Then, in a corresponding column, list all the changes that you would/should/could make in your practice and the way you treat patients. This last column might tell you whether you will survive or not.

And if you cannot glimpse into the future, I respectfully suggest that you take a trip to the Galápagos Islands, look into the edentulous face of the Galápagos tortoise, and start thinking! OH


  1. Chelonoidis nigra, up to 417 kg native to seven of the Galápagos Islands; lifespans can be over 100 years. Spanish explorers, who discovered the islands in the 16th century, named them after the Spanish galápago, meaning “tortoise”.
  2. The essence of the scientific theoryof evolution by natural selection is that in successive generations members of a population are replaced by progenyof parents better adapted to survive and reproduce in the biophysical environment in which natural selection takes place.
  3. Adaptation – to change (something) so as to make it suitable for a new use or situation. Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Dr. Birek is an Associate Professor in the Department of Periodontics and staff surgeon with the Oral Reconstruction Unit at the University of Toronto. He maintains a private practice in Periodontics and Implant Surgery in Toronto. Dr. Peter Birek is the Periodontology editor for Oral Health.