Posted on 12 May 2017
Hit, stun, eat: New insights into narwhal tusks
Footage captured by aerial drones as part of a narwhal research camp in Tremblay Sound, Nunavut, is giving biologists new insights into the behaviour of one of the world’s most mysterious whales.
Narwhals have a long tusk, which is actually a canine tooth that spirals counterclockwise up to nine feet forward from the head of adult males, and a small percentage of females. In the footage, a narwhal can be seen using quick taps of its tusk to stun Arctic cod, rendering them immobile and thus easier to capture and eat.
The footage is significant, both for partially unravelling the mystery of the narwhal tusk and because it shows that narwhals feed on their summering grounds. This helps researchers determine which areas are key narwhal habitat, and need to be considered for protection as the range of the narwhal faces increasing pressure from industrial development.
The behaviour was captured by two drones belonging to documentary filmmaker Adam Ravetch and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which was leading the narwhal research camp.
See narwhal researchers in action.
What we know (and don’t know) about narwhal:
- The volume of research is very small compared to other whales, because narwhals live in remote locations that are difficult to access.
- Scientists know even less about the evolution of the narwhal tusk, which is actually a tooth, though it likely serves more than one purpose. Over the years, theories have included that it is an ice pick, a weapon to win a mate and a tool for echolocation.
- Recent research suggests that the tusk has thousands of nerve endings, as well as pores that allow narwhals to sense the environment around them.
- Every summer, the nutrient-rich waters of Canada’s Lancaster Sound host more than 80,000 narwhals, three quarters of the world’s population.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada, with support from WWF-Canada the Vancouver Aquarium, and the Pond Inlet Hunters and Trappers Organization, will continue research this year on narwhal behaviour and movements in the Eclipse Sound. Additional research through WWF-Canada’s Arctic Species Conservation Fund will seek to identify important narwhal calf rearing habitat in the region.
David Miller, President and CEO for WWF-Canada says:
"This footage, while also stunning to watch, will play a significant role in the future of narwhal conservation. As the Arctic warms and development pressure increases, it will be important to understand how narwhal are using their habitat during their annual migration. With this information in hand, we can work to minimize the effects of human activities on narwhal. More research needs to be conducted to determine how they behave across their range, including the identification of calving and rearing areas. WWF-Canada is looking forward to partnering with Fisheries and Oceans Canada again this year on narwhal research in order to further our understanding of these mysterious animals."