An ode to narwhal (Part One)

Narwhal (Illustration by David Scheirer)

Narwhal (Illustration by David Scheirer)

May 15, 2017 | by Natalie Sopinka

a pod of magic /
breaks through the floe /
what a peculiar way /

(Inspired by Moby Dick)

The whale series returns with Ishmael’s nostril whale, a.k.a. the narwhal.

Whether you pronounce its name nar-wall or nar-whale, this creature’s resemblance to the unicorn probably has you lost in reverie. You recall the days of imaginary friends and eating crayons.

Narwhals (Photo by Mario Cyr)

Narwhals (Photo by Mario Cyr)

The narwhal is whimsical, dapper and has what appears to be a spiraled candy stick sprouting from its head. Actually, only males sprout the long tusk. Similar to other tusked animals, such as walruses, the narwhal’s tusk is a modified tooth.

Why have a tooth sticking out of your head? According a recent discovery, scientists believe the tusk’s primary function is related to attracting a female mate. Here are some of my theories:

A few hypotheses are:

1. Attracting lady narwhals

Male narwhals with longer tusks have larger testes. Larger testes can have faster swimming sperm with superior egg-fertilizing power. So, longer tusks could signal a male’s virility to females.

2. Lightsaber battles

The idea that there are Jedi and Sith narwhals inhabiting Earth’s oceans has not been thoroughly investigated. There is currently no evidence that narwhal tusks glow or are made of kyber crystal (a.k.a. lightsaber crystal). Scars are visible on the bodies of narwhals, suggesting males do use the tusks for battle. Males do touch their tusks together, but  researchers do not think these interactions are aggressive in nature. Rather, if tusks are an honest indicator of quality, then males may size up their competitors by touching tusks.

3. Skewering dinner

Skewering of prey is not observed in the wild. Narwhals eat their dinner by sucking squid, halibut and cod into their mouths.

4. Environmental sensor

Human teeth are sensitive, and the narwhal’s tooth/tusk is sensitive too. One theory is that nerve endings on the tusk’s surface are there to detect differences between salt and fresh water.

5. Knitting

Because who else will make scarves to keep the Arctic foxes warm?

This post originally appeared on Natalie's blog, Phish Doc.

Natalie Sopinka (Photo courtesy Natalie Sopinka)

About the Author

Natalie Sopinka Natalie is a scientist at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research in Windsor, Ontario.

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