Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The narwhal

A watercolor of a narwhal from a series of whales painted by Scottish naturalist Sir William Jardine and published in his 4-volume The Naturalist's Library, 2nd Ed. (1845-1864).

A pod of narwhals surfacing for air.

A pod of narwhals swimming through Baffin Bay, between the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.
A narwhal tusk, which is an extension of the left tooth in males.

What a magical creature is the narwhal! Originally described by Swedish zoologist and father of modern taxonomy Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), its scientific name Monodon monoceros means "one tooth, one horn." That horn is a hollow tusk that extends as a left-handed helix from the incisor in the left upper jaw. It grows to a length of 7' to 10' in males, 1 in 500 of which grow a second tusk out of the right incisor, and is a rarity among females. English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) suggested that the tusk helped maintain social rank and modern biologists compare it to the peacock's tail or the antlers of a stag, since narwhals are rarely observed fighting or breaking ice with it. Instead, they engage in "tusking," which is to rub their tusks together as if they are sword-fighting, while emitting a strange and sad whistle (listen here). The population of narwhals is estimated to be about 75,000 and holding, although their specialized Arctic range and diet make them vulnerable to climate change. They are being studied in Qaanaaq, Greenland, by American researcher Kristin Laidre with the help of 5 local Inuit hunters. According to Inuit legend, the tusk was formed when a narwhal was harpooned by a woman who was dragged into the sea and became a narwhal herself - it was her hair that twisted into the characteristic spiral shape. In medieval Europe, the tusks were thought to belong to the unicorn and believed to have magical properties. They were a staple in the Renaissance cabinet of curiosities. The word "narwhal" comes from Old Norse and means "corpse whale," referring to their mottled coloring (black and white on top and white underneath), which was thought to resemble a drowned sailor. But this morbid detail is only one of the reasons the unicorn of the sea belongs in Quigley's Cabinet!

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