Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Unicorns of the Sea

So I am really enjoying this post about topics thing that I've re-instated because now I can write about anything. For the past few months I've been relying on my experiences to determine what to blog about.  And those experiences were severely lacking.  But no more!  And in honor of that today's post is about (Drum roll please)... NARWHALS!!!  With which I have absolutely no experience.

So for any of you out there who have never heard of or seen a narwhal (scandalous) here is a lovely picture for you...

Now that is clearly one of the coolest animals on the earth today.  Narwhals are basically the unicorns of the sea, except they're real!!

Now you may be wondering exactly what is that thing protruding from it's head?  Well, sadly it is not a horn.  It is, however, a tusk.  Otherwise known as a tooth.  That's right, the narwhal's giant horn is actually a tooth that grows through the porpoise's upper lip.  The tooth originates from the left incisor, and it is a rare specimen that will grow a tusk on both the left and right sides.

The tusk can extend up to 8 feet on the male and is spiraled.  Females will also grow a tusk, though it will be smaller and straighter than the male's.  Though scientists have long debated over the exact purpose of this extreme tooth, is it used for breaking ice, spearing fish, piercing ships, transmitting sound, shedding excess body heat, poking the seabed for food, wooing females, defending baby narwhals or establishing dominance in social hierarchies?  Not exactly.  In recent years a team of scientists from Harvard and the National Institute of Standards and Technology discovered that the tusk is actually an sensory organ.  This means that as the narwhal is swimming through the water, the tusk is sending information from the environment, such as subtle changes of temperature, pressure, and particle gradient, to the brain.  And while it's not exactly known why the whale needs to know all of this information, there are a few theories out there.

As previously mentioned, the narwhal is a porpoise rather than a whale.  As such, they are related to bottlenose dolphins, belugas, harbor porpoises, and orcas.  Like some of these other sea mammals, narwhals travel in groups to feed, typically in numbers from 15-20, though sightings have been reported with up to 1000 whales.  Crazy. The narwhal is native to the Arctic, specifically around Canada and Greenland, though they have been spotted as far east as Siberia.