When the news broke on Thanksgiving weekend that a terrorist wearing an explosives vest and stabbing people on the London Bridge was subdued by a Polish chef wielding a narwhal tusk, I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it. And then I started getting social media alerts from friends drawing my attention to the story.
That’s because I’ve been enamored of narwhals since childhood, and because I wrote the first book for adult readers about narwhals a few years ago. Now, everyone I know who
sees something in the news
about narwhals lets me know about it.
|Close up of two narwhal tusks (Todd McLeish)|
The growing interest in narwhals – a 15-foot long Arctic whale with an 8-foot spiral tusk – is due in part to the many children’s books featuring the animal, as well as a brief appearance in the holiday movie Elf, and numerous other obscure cultural references. Almost every shop with animal-themed gifts seems to have something with a narwhal on it these days.
I’m glad they do. Most people have never heard of the narwhal, and many of those that have heard of it think the animal is a mythological creature, probably because its twisted tusk looks like a unicorn horn. Since we know that unicorns aren’t real, many people assume narwhals aren’t either.
But they are, and they’re amazing! Their tusk is their left tooth. They only have two teeth. In males, their left tooth emerges through their upper lip and grows straight forward from their face, while their right tooth remains impacted in their jaw and doesn’t grow at all. Neither tooth is useful for chewing.
The first question I usually get about narwhals is about the purpose of the tusk. Why would an animal grow a tooth half the length of its body, especially one that is so heavy that it must be a challenge to swim with? Despite early speculation, it is not used as a tool for digging for food in the seafloor or as a weapon for defense or as a spear for procuring prey. Like the lion’s mane and the peacock’s tail, it is simply a male adornment used to attract a mate and maintain social order. And in this case, size matters.
But that’s not all. Last year some biologists using a drone to observe narwhals noted that one used its tusk to slap and stun a fish before eating it. No one knows if that’s a common behavior, but at least one inventive narwhal is using its tusk in that way.
And a dentist in Connecticut believes the tusk is a sensory organ, based on his observation of thousands of tiny microtubules that go through the tooth, allowing air and water to mingle with the nerve endings that run down the center of the tusk. Most biologists dispute that speculation, since a sensory organ would likely be a trait shared with females, and females don’t have tusks. Nonetheless, the dentist is very convincing.
Narwhals have plenty of other amazing features, too, including a collapsible ribcage allowing them to dive more than a mile deep, echolocation abilities to find food in the darkness below the ice, and a thick layer of blubber so they can live year-round high above the Arctic Circle.
Although they are highly vulnerable to the rapid changes taking place in the Arctic due to the climate crisis, they are weathering the storm so far. And they can now proudly say that their tusk has proven useful in fighting terrorism. One time, anyway.