Sunday, January 9, 2011

Creature Feature: Narwhal.

Pretend that you're a person in medieval times. You're just headin' down to port, getting ready to buy some fish. On the way to your favorite fisherman, a strange item catches your eye:

Isn't that a horn from one of those magical white horses that the England put on its coat of arms? Heeeyyyy, wait a second! Unicorns don't exist...or do they?

If they do, they look FREAKY.

Nah, they don't. That twisted horn - actually a giant, ivory tooth akin to an elephant's tusk - belongs to an ocean-dwelling mammal called a narwhal (Monodon monoceros - lit. "one tooth, one horn"). As the name might indicate, they are related to other whales (particularly the beluga whale) and live in the Arctic waters year-round. They eat various things farther down on the marine food chain, sometimes diving down over 1,500 meters to get their lunch. Like the polar bear, they are somewhat threatened by global warming. (They are not officially recognized as endangered, however.)

Oh, and hunting.

The male narwhal's tusk (yes, usually only one) was quite valuable way back in the day. A unicorn's horn was said to have magical properties, curing poison among them; a single narwhal tusk could be sold for a very high price. Not realizing that a real horn should not have been made out of ivory, many people bought narwhal teeth, including Queen Elizabeth I. Nowadays, people know better, but the twist of a narwhal's tooth has stuck in many a unicorn image.

En garde!

Nobody really knows why male narwhals have these huge (2-3 meter long) tusks.  The most common assumption is that they evolved, like a lion's mane, to show a male's fitness, They also have some role in regulating social order. Yeeaaah, guys, don't get any ideas; these narwhals will outdo you in every way. Their ways to attract ladies get preserved in museums, even though the whale had to die in the process. There are also some lucky males that are endowed with two tusks; feel free to let your mind wander.

Narwhal hunting is still legal in moderation. The Inuit people have been hunting these ceteans for centuries for food. They eat every part of the narwhal, just like Plains natives consumed every part of the buffalo. Narwhal meat (for whatever reason) is the Inuit people's main source of vitamin C. Yes, apparently whales with unicorn tusks have a similar nutritional value to oranges.

A good source of vitamin C?

They also have a song.You're welcome.

1 comment:

  1. so a narwhal is a cousin to the orange? COOOOOOOL!!!