Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hands-on with narwhal's closest relative

This cute photograph of a beluga whale pushing its face up against the glass at an aquarium has been making the rounds on the Internet, including numerous postings on Facebook and Twitter, after first appearing in several newspapers in the United Kingdom last week.  And it reminded me of my hands-on experience with a beluga at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut last year. 
The beluga is the narwhal’s closest relative – the two species are the only members of the Monodontidae family of small toothed whales – and it is not uncommon to see both of them in the same general vicinity in the eastern Canadian Arctic.  While they are approximately the same size, they are nonetheless strikingly different.  Belugas are slow swimmers and shallow divers that prefer inshore waters where their reputation for being particularly “talkative” led to their common nickname, the sea canary.  As adults they have completely white skin, “smiling” lips, a full set of teeth, a fatty and oily melon on their foreheads, and can turn their head, making belugas anatomically unique.
The aquarium’s beluga trainer brought me waist deep into the water at the back of the beluga exhibit, and I spent the next 30 minutes with a whale named Naku, an 11-year-old, 1,350 pound smiling beluga.  I got to put my hand in her mouth and touch her conical teeth, pat her tongue – which felt like a slimy chicken breast fresh from the fridge – and feel the powerful suction she makes with her mouth to inhale food.  My favorite part was touching her melon, which she uses to focus her echolocation signals and which reminded me of a baggy full of jelly that I could easily manipulate.  For the rest of my visit with Naku, I couldn’t help but repeatedly place my hand on her melon to feel and watch it jiggle.
Before we finished, Naku demonstrated some of the vocalizations that belugas make.  Her trainer told me to use four fingers to tickle her under the chin, which prompted Naku to produce a startlingly loud and rapid clicking noise.  A four-finger tickle to the roof of her mouth resulted in a soft kitten purr that could not have been more adorable from such a large animal.  And drawing one finger across the side of her melon generated a loud fart-like noise, which was an entertaining way to wrap up my visit.
While I’m philosophically on the fence about captive and trained animals at zoos and aquariums, it certainly appeared to me that the belugas at Mystic Aquarium were well cared for and reasonably happy.  And the experience I had with Naku was one I’ll never forget.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tusk Smugglers Convicted

Photo by National Geographic
Twice in the last month, individuals in the U.S. have been arrested for possessing narwhal tusks, which is a violation of the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.  While narwhal populations are somewhat stable, they are vulnerable to pressures from the illegal trade of their tusks, which can sell for $1,000 or more.
            The latest case this week involved a 58-year-old woman with Australian and Canadian citizenship who was living in Santa Fe, N.M., and who has had seven tusks in her home since 1981 that she knew were imported illegally.  She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year of probation.  News reports don’t mention it, but I assume (or hope) that the tusks were forfeited as well.
            Earlier in the month, an antiques dealer on the island of Nantucket in Massachusetts was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison for smuggling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of narwhal tusks and sperm whale teeth into the U.S. from the Ukraine.  A co-conspirator was sentenced to nine months in prison after which he will be deported to the Ukraine, and a third party – a scrimshaw artist who purchased the whale teeth – will be sentenced in May.
            In Canada and Greenland it is legal for some native communities to hunt narwhals and sell their tusks, but restrictions are being tightened on the practice all the time.  In Qaanaaq, Greenland, where I visited last summer and observed a narwhal hunt, local hunters can kill up to 85 narwhals per year, and during most of the year they are restricted to hunting only from a kayak and using a hand-thrown harpoon.  However, the Greenland government established an export ban on narwhal tusks in 2004 because government scientists couldn’t confirm that narwhal hunting was not negatively affecting the narwhal population.  In December 2010, the Canadian government established a similar ban for the same reason for 17 hunting communities in the province of Nunavut.  That decision is being appealed.
            Regardless of whether or not the bans are repealed, it will continue to be illegal to bring narwhal tusks into the U.S.  As much as I would like to own a tusk and display it on my living room wall as a remarkable object of natural history, I also don’t want to be part of the reason that narwhal numbers decline in the future.  As biologist Kerry Finley told me, as soon as you start putting a price tag on wild animal parts – whether it’s meat, antlers, tusks, gall bladders, or any other part – you put animal populations in jeopardy.
While Finley supports subsistence hunting by native people in the North, he worries that hunting of narwhals exclusively for their tusks will have serious repercussions on the evolution of the species.  “Never in evolutionary history has so much powerful selection pressure been meted against that portion of the population that has survived to adulthood and carries the best genes for survival,” he told me in an email.  “Several recent studies have shown that such strong selection pressure has had a profound genetic effect by, for example, reducing the size of the main sexual attractant (e.g. size of bighorn sheep horns in the Canadian Rockies).  It also has profound effects on social organization and breeding success.”

So let’s all refrain from the buying and selling of narwhal tusks and simply enjoy knowing that this amazing animal is plying the Arctic waters in healthy numbers.  In the end, I’m sure we would all agree that a healthy narwhal population is more important than having another artifact on our mantle.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Sea Unicorn

I’ve got plenty of friends who think that my collection of animal skulls is pretty strange, but I’m equally perplexed by the thousands of people who collect unicorn figurines and related memorabilia.  I was stunned to do a Google search recently and find more than 27 million web pages related to unicorns, and thousands of unicorn items are for sale on eBay.  Clearly, unicorns are big business.
          But they’ve been big business before, too.  Although the unicorn myth was born a couple thousand years ago, it really got a boost in the Middle Ages when narwhal tusks were sold on the European market as unicorn horns.  It was believed that powdered unicorn horn – sometimes called alicorn – could cure epilepsy and numerous other diseases, and that if you drank from a cup made from a unicorn horn you could not be poisoned.
         As a result, for several centuries narwhal tusks were more valuable than gold.  Kaiser Karl V of Austria paid off his nation’s debt with two tusks, and in the 16th century Queen Elizabeth received a tusk that was valued the same as an entire castle.  The royal coronation throne of Denmark is made almost entirely of narwhal tusks, with Christian V becoming the first Danish king crowned in the chair in 1671.  My wife took this photo of the throne on a visit to Rosenberg Castle in Copenhagen last year.
          Eventually, of course, it was discovered that the tusks came from narwhals and not unicorns, but that just encouraged the myth rather than disproved it because it was believed then that all terrestrial animals had marine counterparts, so if a sea unicorn existed then certainly one existed on land, too.
          While I can’t imagine that many people still believe that unicorns are real today, you wouldn’t know it by their continuing popularity.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Strangest Tooth in Nature

I suppose I should answer the first question people have about this blog:  What’s the title mean?
As most people know, one of the most amazing things about the narwhal -- and its most notable physiological feature -- is that it has a tusk.  A spiral tusk that can extend up to eight feet long.  And that tusk is a tooth, one of only two teeth in its jaw.
The left tooth erupts through its upper lip and becomes its tusk while the right tooth remains impacted in its jaw and only rarely does it grow.  One narwhal researcher called the tusk “the most unusual tooth in nature” and perhaps the only example of asymmetry in teeth in the mammalian world.  (I should note that except in rare cases, only males have a tusk, and a very tiny percentage of males have two tusks.)
Perhaps equally bizarre is that fetal narwhals show evidence of four teeth – two in front and two in back – but by the time they are born, the two original back teeth have disappeared and the two front teeth have migrated to the back.  Why it would do that is anybody’s guess.  The narwhal’s tusk is also remarkably flexible for a tooth, and incredibly heavy.
 On my first visit to Arctic Canada, to a tiny Inuit village called Pond Inlet on the north of Baffin Island, there is a general store that serves the community and behind the door of the manager’s office were seven narwhal tusks for sale.  They looked like beautiful works of art, with a hint of algae in the spiral grooves, a polished tip where the animal may have rubbed it in the sand on the seafloor, and a hollow core where the tooth’s pulp and nerve endings would have been found.   When I returned to the store a week later after camping 60 miles away, all the tusks had been sold to tourists who had arrived on a small cruise ship.  They were priced at about $125 per foot, with the biggest one going for more than $1,000.
That’s a lot of cash for a narwhal’s left tooth.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Beginning an Arctic Journey

Narwhals have been filling my every waking hour lately.  The Arctic whale with the long spiral tusk is among the most unusual mammals on Earth, and they will face immense challenges in coming years as the Arctic ice upon which they depend continues to melt away.
 I became enamored of this remarkable whale as a kid, and my curiosity was rekindled by news reports several years ago.  Last summer I traveled to northern Canada and camped with researchers trying to catch the elusive animal, and I joined a subsistence hunt with native Inuit in northern Greenland (and celebrated its success by eating raw narwhal blubber).  I’ve spoken with narwhal biologists in Copenhagen and Seattle, with climatologists in Colorado, and even with a dentist in Connecticut who is studying the whale’s tusk.  The more I learn, the more intrigued I become. 
So I thought I’d share some of my exciting adventures and a bit about what I’ve learned in this blog, like how narwhal tusks helped to “prove” the existence of unicorns, how early explorers worried that narwhals could use their tusks to puncture their ships, and how narwhals are able to dive nearly a mile deep in the ocean to feed on halibut.  I’ll examine the whale’s most remarkable feature, its tusk – the most unusual tooth in the natural world – and the fierce disagreement between biologists and the dentist about its purpose.  And I hope you will share your thoughts, too, on the tusk, on the appropriateness of subsistence hunting, on the potential implications of the melting pack ice, and whatever else intrigues you about this creature.  Along the way I hope to discuss the Arctic environment, the other wildlife that share the ecosystem with the narwhal, and the intriguing people I met along the way. 
 I hope you’ll follow along with me to discover more about this amazing sea unicorn, and I welcome your comments and thoughts about why you think narwhals are one of the coolest animals on the planet.
To get us started and in the mood for a narwhal lovefest, check out this crazy animated video and song.  It seems that everywhere I go and raise the subject of the narwhal, someone starts to sing this song to me.  Very weird.