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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Oh Narwhal, Where Art Thou?

Air Date: Week of

Narwhals “tusking,” a gentle social interaction. (National Institute of Standards and Technology)

Narwhals are one of the least studied, yet most legendary, whales on earth. Their spiral teeth were once sold around the world as unicorn horns. Now a catch-and-release study may answer some basic questions about their behavior. Jack Rodolico reports.


GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Just ahead: as the frozen Arctic melts, nations discuss how to divvy up a cool trillion dollars worth of resources. But first this Note on Emerging Science from Jack Rodolico.


RODOLICO: Narwhals have baffled humanity for hundreds of years. But a new study may answer some basic questions about the arctic whales: where do they go, and what are they doing when they get there?


RODOLICO: Narwhals are best known for their corkscrew tooth, or tusk, that grows up to nine feet out of their heads. A thousand years ago, their tusks were sold around the world as unicorn horns. But today scientists believe the tooth is a sensory organ, like an antenna. That may explain why narwhals seem to respond to large ships as far as 30 miles away.

All narwhal tusks grow in a spiral pattern. (Photo: Andreas Praefcke)

But they don’t encounter ships often. Narwhals live in remote waters throughout the Arctic Ocean, making them a tricky whale to study. Now the World Wildlife Federation and the Canadian Government are working on a catch-and-release program so they can take a closer look at the large mammals.

A team of scientists on Baffin Island cast a big net along the beach and waited for narwhals to swim into it. They strapped satellite transmitters on seven narwhals. Now, the tracking devices beam data constantly, keeping the team informed about the mammals’ whereabouts. The researchers hope the transmitters will answer some basic questions about narwhal behavior, and perhaps even shed some light on the narwhal’s curious antenna. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Jack Rodolico.




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