After centuries of mystery, we've solved the mystery of narwhal tusks and now know what "the unicorn of the sea" uses its most distinctive feature for.
Narwhal tusks have long baffled marine biologists, who’ve made just guesses at what this one-of-a-kind feature might do. Some thought that it was used in echolocation, or to break through ice, or to battle with rivals for mates.
However, newly released drone footage of a narwhal in action reveals the tusk’s (actually a tooth — one that can reach nine feet in length) true purpose once and for all.
The video — captured by the World Wildlife Fund in Tremblay Sound near Nunavut, Canada — shows a narwhal using its tusk to stun its prey before eating it. Yes, in the end, the narwhal’s tusk is meant for the rather unsurprising task of immobilizing fish during a hunt.
As self-evident as that may seem now, scientists were indeed confounded, or at least uncertain, for hundreds of years.
“Previously we thought that narwhals used their tusks to joust with rivals and help them mate, or even a device for echolocation,” said WWF’s Rod Downie, “but this new footage shows a behaviour that has never been seen before.”
And why were scientists mistaken, or at least in the dark, for so long? As Downie said, “The narwhal is one of the least studied animals because it is so hard to get to the Arctic areas where it lives. So drones are helping us study its behaviour.”
Furthermore, these creatures may become even harder to study, given that there are now only 110,000 of them left in the wild and that their Arctic habitats are only getting warmer and warmer.
Thus, the WWF hopes that this video and more drone footage like it will help researchers determine how the narwhal are adapting to climate change and how humans might lend a hand.
“As the Arctic warms and development pressure increases, it will be important to understand how narwhal are using their habitat during their annual migration,” said WWF-Canada President David Miller. “With this information in hand, we can work to minimize the effects of human activities on narwhal.”