Narwhals are known as the unicorns of the sea because of their distinct tusk. The purpose of this long tooth has been unclear, but a new drone video of the marine mammals that were taken in Tremblay Sound in Nunavut, Canada helps unveil this mystery.
What Are Narwhals?
Narwhals are a species of toothed whale that are characterized by their long tusks that can grow as long as 8.8 feet long in males. The females of the species were also observed to grow tusks albeit theirs are smaller in size.
The animals actually have two teeth but one breaks through the upper lip and gets mistaken for a horn. About 90 percent of the world's narwhal population can be found in the waters of Canada.
The footage, which was captured by researchers from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Canada, shows the pale porpoises stunning Arctic cods using their long tusk prior to capturing and devouring these preys. The toothed whales, in particular, hit their prey using jagged and quick movements that immobilize the fish and make them easier to prey upon.
"This is an entirely new observation of how the tusk is used," said Brandon Laforest, from WWF-Canada.
Capturing the footage of the narwhals is a rare feat for researchers because the animals are elusive. They are rarely seen in their icy Arctic habitat. The researchers managed to capture the footage of these marine mammals while tracking the movement of the narwhals in a bid to identify their critical habitats that need to be protected.
Footage May Help Conservation Efforts
WWF-Canada president David Miller said that the footage will have an important role in the future of conservation efforts to save the narwhals.
Knowing the key regions where the animals rely on for food and calving may help conservationists protect these environments and the animals' migratory routes. Identifying these critical areas and taking these into consideration when creating shipping routes, for instance, can reduce disturbance to the species.
The species are currently threatened by climate change and industrial development. They face increased risk of being struck by ships as extraction of minerals and tourism became more prevalent in their habitats. Noise produced by ships can also interfere with their ability to communicate.
The Mysterious Narwhal Tusk
Although the video confirms one of the theories of how narwhals use their tusks, researchers said that the tusks still have other purposes such as for ice picks, sexual selection, weapons, and as a tool for echolocation.
Scientists earlier thought that the tusk has a role in the mammals' mating rituals with the male narwhals using it to battle with other males of the species to win mates or to show off to potential partners. The new drone video, however, shows how narwhals actually use their tusk.
Researchers also think that the tusk also serves as an important sensory organ, which is covered in thousands of nerve endings and pores that play a role in narwhals sensing the environment around them.