Ever since Tolkien most, if not all, works of fiction including orcs portray them with tusks. Though this achieves the effect of portraying them as animalistic, what would the real world applications of this feature be? Would it cause any health problems or change their dietary preferences?

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    $\begingroup$ Orcs are fierce and very smart as they even instinctively knows how to dig their own grave hands-free! $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ "Reality check" usually means to check something against our reality, and for biological species it involves checking evolutionary feasibility. However, in Tolkien's world there is not evolution: all creatures were created by Eru or for some Valar. Morgoth created the orcs. Asking for "real applications of this feature" is asking about what had Morgoth in mind when he created it, and what are they used for. Is not asking about evolution. $\endgroup$
    – Pere
    Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 23:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Pere While that's a valid point, other works since Tolkien have portrayed orcs with tusks, without any mention of Morgoth. The questioner presumably wants an evolutionary explanation of it for their own work. $\endgroup$
    – Draconis
    Commented Sep 10, 2017 at 15:14
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    $\begingroup$ Nitpick: I don't believe that Tolkien ever described the Orcs (“uruk”) as creatures with tusks. That was, as I understand it, something which was added later on account from the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons and the proliferation of its association with Tolkien's mythos by some fans. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 14:14
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    $\begingroup$ @can-ned_food I'm pretty sure you're right - the tusks come from early D&D, and orcs in some other games don't have tusks, e.g. orcs drawn for The Fantasy Trip (1980) have pointy teeth but no fangs. $\endgroup$
    – Dronz
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 15:10

8 Answers 8


It Reflects Dietary Differences and Requires Surprisingly Little Hand-Waving

The answer is going to depend on whether the tusks grow up out of the lower jaw, down out of the upper jaw, or in some other direction. Each will have starkly different uses, benefits, and detracting aspects. For the sake of brevity and because they are the most common depictions, I will only consider tusks that grow from the lower jaw up, as in this fellow:

enter image description here

The short story of this post is that it's probably not better or worse, just different. Well, maybe a bit worse, but it's not a show-stopper.

Evolutionary Issue

Here's the big issue with small tusks that grow upwards - they aren't terribly useful for a tool-using species.

They can absolutely be used to help tear meat from a carcass that has already been felled, but you would have to really shove your face right in there to do it. For a species that has tool-use capability (they probably used tools to bring down the prey, actually), it doesn't make sense that they would then shove their faces in to strip the meat off.

There are other animals that have tusks that grow upwards - boars and hippos come to mind - but they largely use that set for face-on-face aggression. Given the comparably small size of typical orc tusks and the fact that they can use fists and weapons, the need for face-on-face aggression is minimal at best, and most likely non-existent.

These issues can probably be hand-waved by suggesting that previously the physiology of orcs suggested that they did participate in face-on-face fighting, back before they were walking fully upright and using tools. Back then their tusks were larger, and have been shrinking over thousands of years. They could be used more for decoration and intimidation (as in the picture above) than for other purposes.

Dental Structure and Resulting Diet

I'm sure dentists all over the world cringe at Orcs, and not because of their brutish behavior and strength. They are so often depicted as having tusks that are next to human-looking teeth, and that's just ridiculous. Human-like teeth are prone to crowding problems, which create alignment issues, which jacks with the whole musculature of your face - and that's without trying to make room for the growth of very large teeth.

What you would actually end up with is something more akin to the sabertooth tiger (albeit upside-down), where there is actually a good gap near the tusks and on the opposite side of the jaw:

enter image description here

This is going to create a situation where, like the sabertooth tiger, the Orc is necessarily largely (if not entirely) carnivorous. Unlike in a hippo or warthog, I would guess that the jaw structure leaves too little space for grinding teeth for plant matter to be a substantial part of the diet. That does jive with many descriptions of Orcs though, and there are many instances of carnivorous animals out there that demonstrate it is a successful survival strategy (though I am not convinced it could give rise to a sentient, social species).

Health Impact

Jaw-attached tusks have many of the same problems as teeth, though to greater and lesser degrees. For example, while cavities (or cavity-like issues) are still a problem, it would be less a problem for orcs than for people. This is because cavities are often caused by a buildup of acid between teeth, but tusks require the existence of space between the tusk and other teeth, which reduces the occurrence and impact.

Issues that would be higher though include the fact that, being larger and external to the face, they would be more likely to be knocked/impacted and chip/break.

They would also force the owners mouth open somewhat, which introduces a vector for pathogens. However, it is likely that orcs have other adaptations to assist with that issue, particularly because they are also likely carnivorous and used to eating raw meat.

Musculature Impact

This is probably the area where most depictions get things wrong. Usually we see orcs as humans with some big teeth, but it doesn't just work that way. To support the added weight and distribution, the entire complex of muscles that works the jaw would need to be re-worked, which would impact neck, shoulder, and back musculature as well. The most noticeable difference would probably be that their face would tend to bulge more where the jaw attaches. It would probably move them closer to the uncanny valley and make them even more repulsive to humans.

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    $\begingroup$ Lok'tar ogar, chieftain Durotan! $\endgroup$
    – IS4
    Commented Sep 10, 2017 at 13:17
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    $\begingroup$ As I understood evolution, as soon as the species becomes superior, e.g. by intelligence, it is out of the survival loop and any physical change is just random noise. Meaning the tusks wouldn't disappear automatically, just because they don't need them anymore. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Commented Sep 10, 2017 at 20:51
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    $\begingroup$ No, superior species is still in fierce competition with itself, and by no means out of the survival loop. $\endgroup$
    – charlie_pl
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 5:13
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    $\begingroup$ @charlie_pl Ok, but unneeded properties still don't disappear automatically (e.g. shrinking tusks) as long as they're not a disadvantage for survival or reproduction. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 5:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Chris The significant evolution present in anatomically modern humans suggest that is absolutely not the case. The evolution of white skin occurred after humans were anatomically modern, as has digestion of lactose and a number of different adaptations to high altitude found in people in the Andes, Himalayas and Ethiopian highlands. Strong natural selection pressures are still present long after humans are anatomically modern. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 11:34

While there might have been a strictly practical use for these teeth earlier in their evolution--look to @GrinningX's answer for that, it had to have been selected for long after they have a use for it.

After all, if they have hands and tools, they would not need them very much.

I am going to draw a parallel between orc tusks and human breasts here.

Humans are strange when it comes to mammary glands. Bigger breasted women have been selected for, and thus, most ladies have mounds in that area. They've been selected as a positive sexual characteristic. But honestly, in the form they come, they are certainly not practical. While mammals and primates have boobs, they certainly aren't at all like human breasts. So...why? They don't make running very easy, and the larger size doesn't make for more efficient sources of milk for young.

The answer is as far as we can guess, is that collectively, males of the species found this more attractive, so we selected for breasts. More bosoms equaled more of a chance to reproduce, and was seen as an indicator of fitness and attractiveness.

So your tusks can be the same kind of thing. If you want them more prominent on males, tie it to testosterone levels--making it like deer antlers (while they fight with them, they are also for display). Females have antlers, but not as prominently as males.

Health Problems/Differences

So orcs aren't always that smart in fantasy lit. And there may actually be a little bit a of a biological reason for that. Jaw strength.

See, in humans, we were able to develop a bigger brain later in our development because we lost muscle strength, in particular, in the jaw. There's a theory that a genetic mutation which governs jaw strength, which weakened in proto-humans, was a trade off for better intelligence. It's more complex than that, actually (see the quote below), but there might be at least a little bit of a trade-off--stronger, and more muscular equals less brain power for the species over-all.

our jaw muscles need to exert considerably less force from to produce it. This explains some peculiar characteristics of our skulls. Our teeth are as tough as those of other primates because they still need to withstand the relatively high forces exerted by our bite. But the rest of our skull can afford to be comparatively flimsier. The jaw muscles attach to the skull and inflict stress upon it when they work. But our jaw muscles can produce a strong bite through less effort than those of other primates. As such, they inflict fewer stresses upon the skull, which can afford to abandon some of its sturdiness. SOURCE

As for medical problems, may I invite you to Tusk/Dental Care for Pigs!

I know you are thrilled beyond measure by this introduction.

At about 5 to 7 months of age, the permanent canine teeth will erupt. These canine teeth grow continuously throughout the pig's life. They should be first trimmed at about 1 year of age and then trimmed on an annual basis. Without trimming, the canine teeth will become elongated and cause discomfort and a misaligned bite.

You could have teeth and/or tusks work this way, so they actually have to file them and maintain them regularly.

Dietary Preferences

Could be anything really. Take a look at this list of tusked animals. You've got walruses, elephants, hippos, pigs--notice that some of these are actually... ::gasp:: vegetarians.

Here's what the wild boar eats:

The Wild Boar is an omnivorous animal that primarily feeds on plants. Plant matter comprises around 90% of the Wild Boar's diet as they feed on young leaves, berries, grasses and fruits, and unearth roots and bulbs from the ground with their hard snouts. Living in highly seasonal regions, Wild Boars have had to adapt to the changing fruits and flowers, and are known to favour the protein-rich nuts (such as acorns) that become available in the autumn and prepare them for the winter ahead. They will however, eat almost anything that will fit into their mouths, and supplement their diet by eating eggs, Mice, Lizards, Worms and even Snakes. Wild Boar will also happily finish off the abandoned kill of another animal. SOURCE

Mostly plants, but pretty much anything they can get their hands on.

I'd say that orcs are more likely to be equal opportunity eaters. That is, omnivorous, so they can eat anything. It would be kind of fun to make most of them vegetarians.

  • $\begingroup$ Are you saying size of brain has a relation to intelligence? $\endgroup$
    – Zaibis
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 11:00
  • $\begingroup$ Warcraft orcs at least are quite smart. They just have a culture that glorifies violence, which makes them behave in ways that may not make them appear smart to humans. Tolkien orcs I'm not so sure of, because the trilogy doesn't spend much time from their point of view. Warhammer Orcs are dumb but have smaller greenskins around to do their heavy thinking for them. $\endgroup$
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 14:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Zaibis not really. What I am saying is that jaw strength limits later in life skull development. And that allowance for slower development makes humans smarter in the long run (though we have longer childhoods and brain/skull development.) $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 13:33
  • $\begingroup$ @T.E.D. #notallorcs Not every example in fantasy will be markedly less smart. But the OP asked for possible tradeoffs/issues. Ridged bone and different musculoskeletal connections especially when it comes to jaw strength could have those trade-offs. Looking more beast - like could have some impact--here on earth many of those characteristics are associated with proto humans and animals. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 13:44

Tusks are terribly effective weapons when fighting close range. Look at wild boars: they use their tusks while charging the enemy

boar typically attacks by charging and pointing its tusks towards the intended victim, with most injuries occurring on the thigh region. Once the initial attack is over, the boar steps back, takes position and attacks again if the victim is still moving, only ending once the victim is completely incapacitated

If they hit it's not going to be funny.


Re "Ever since Tolkien...", were there orcs - using that name, not just orc-like creatures - in literature prior to Tolkien?

Now perhaps my memory is failing, but I don't recall Tolkien describing orcs as having tusks. Fangs, perhaps, such as apes have - which pretty much answers both facets of the question, doesn't it? Orcs have fangs (and their other qualities) because they are rather ape-like. And we can get an idea of their diet & behaviour by looking at what real-world apes do with their fangs.

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    $\begingroup$ I would also appreciate a quote of Tolkien mentioning orcs having tusks – and elves having pinched ears. As far as I remember, these creatures are more characterised by the emotions they convey in persons seeing them rather than by their physical features. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 10, 2017 at 17:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael Grünewald : Here's a link to a question containing quotes from Tolkien: scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/92632/… No mention of tusks, just fangs: "Sam, cowering behind the stair-door, caught a glimpse of his evil face as it passed: it was scored as if by rending claws and smeared with blood; slaver dripped from its protruding fangs; the mouth snarled like an animal." This is after the fight between the orcs in Cirith Ungol, so a bit of dishevelment is only to be expected :-) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Sep 10, 2017 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ Here's what Wikipedia has on the etymology of Orcs: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orc#Old_English Old English glossaries record the word orc corresponding with Latin Orcus (deity of the Underworld), and synonymous with þyrs/ðyrs "ogre" (cognate to Old Norse: þurs), as well as "hell devil". The Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal defines ork in the very closely related Old Dutch language as a verslindend monster ("devouring monster"),[3] and points at a possible origin in the Old Dutch nork "petulant, crabbed, evil person" $\endgroup$
    – Doomfrost
    Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 7:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Doomfrost: Sure, but AFAIK no actual imagined orcs in literature prior to Tolkien. Tolkien used a lot of words derived from languages ancestral to English, but applied them to things that were largely his own creation. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 2:50
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf At least not imagined in the capacity that Tolkien imagined orcs. Earlier authors would use goblins or trolls in that capacity. (Like Tolkien did himself in Bilbo.) But as the Wiki article says, there were orcs in folklore prior to JRR. $\endgroup$
    – Doomfrost
    Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 12:01

Their application may be for display. Bigger tusks could reflect a more fit individual and give them an advantage in attracting a mate (do orcs mate, I know in the Tolkien world all sentient species were created so the biology is beyond me)

They could also be able to be a display of social dominance (we don't have to fight because you are so much more tusky than me and I know I will lose).

As for problems, all sorts of heath problems could be caused by having a massive lower jaw to support tusks or difficulty eating, or real problems of an ingrown tusk pointing the wrong way.


AFAIK that's a remnant because they evolved from boars instead of apes, also the shape of their nose match.

"Modern" usage of the feature is (probably) to dig into your chest to eat your heart (NOTE: real boar tusks are used to dig into the ground to unearth edible roots and insects, beside males fighting in the mating season).

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    $\begingroup$ For more discussion on the evolution of a boar into a humanoid, see here: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/51563/… $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 10, 2017 at 7:29
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    $\begingroup$ But if we go with Tolkien, there are hybrids between men and orcs. This is (barely, perhaps) possible if orcs are genetically-engineered apes (or hunans or elves that have undergone reverse engineering towards apehood, as Tolkien suggests might be the case). It's not going to be possible if orcs are descended from pigs. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 4:58
  • $\begingroup$ "AFAIK that's a remnant because they evolved from boars instead of monkeys" - I never saw this before. Could you name an author that uses that? Or is it your own suggestion? $\endgroup$
    – ANeves
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 10:50
  • $\begingroup$ @ANeves: sincerely I don't know where I picked up the notion. It might be I simply assumed so from pictures, but it still makes a lot of sense to me. Snout nose. Fangs. Even behavior is not unlike wild boars. $\endgroup$
    – ZioByte
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 11:30

From Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orc

"In The Silmarillion, Tolkien conceived the Orcs to be Elves who had been enslaved and tortured by Morgoth and broken and twisted into his evil soldiers. In other versions of their origin, including those from Tolkien's notes, the Orcs are depicted as the parodies or false-creations of Morgoth, animated solely by his evil will or perhaps, by his own diffused essence, and made intentionally to mock or spite Eru Ilúvatar's creations—the Eldar and Edain."

Like other posters have said, orcs had fangs. There was no evolutionary or practical reason for them to have fangs, much less big tusks. Their bodies were they way they were because Morgoth hated the other Valar (gods) and he deliberately made the orcs evil and horrible in body and mind to mock the creation of Elves and Men.

I remember from The Silmarillion that Morgoth was angry that other gods created children but the supreme god put a stop to it before Morgoth could create a race of children, which is why he twisted Men and Elves. I think he also created the dragons, trolls, balrogs, and most of the other evil creatures. Shelob the Spider was a notable exception, being a daughter of Ungoliant, a primordial spider demon.

Morgoth was a god, and he had godlike powers strong enough to corrupt spirits, raise mountains and warp life. Sauron was one of Morgoth's original corrupted spirits, which shows you how powerful Morgoth was.

Dungeons & Dragons (1977) depicted orcs as pig-like creatures with tusks on their lower jaws. Tolkien orcs were never like that.

D&D Orcs

If the orcs you're thinking of are natural creatures, they might have tusks left over from an earlier stage of evolution. Perhaps they evolved from baboons, who have very dangerous fangs.

Like another poster mentioned, tusks on the lower jaw could be for digging or even ripping up tree bark to get at insects beneath. Once prey was dead, an orc could use his tusks to rip open the carcass to get at the raw meat. I don't think they'd be that good for attacking because they'd depend on the strength of his jaw muscles alone instead of being driven by the strength of his neck, shoulders and core like immobile upper jaw fangs.

For health problems, big tusks would interfere with an orc's ability to fully close his lips. He would get tooth damage from dry mouth, probably have a problem with saliva irritating his lips and chin, and slurring his words. Breaking a tusk could be very painful, and if an orc got an infection he might even die from it. Since the tusks are right in front of his face, there would be a good chance of them getting hit in battle. He might be self-conscious about his tusks and worry that people think that he's just a dumb animal-like barbarian.


It could be an "accident" of evolution. Primitive, pre-tool orcs used in the same way that boars do: they possibly had powerful jaws that could open wide and used them as the primary weapon. They might have become genetically linked (if such a thing is possible!) with the general health of the orc, and as such they become a symbol of sexual attractiveness.

Most importantly, they must never have become a hindrance to the orc's survival.

Then, by the time they learned to use tools and weapons, they were well established and they never lost them.


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