Narwhal exhibit sheds light on mysterious underwater mammal

Wednesday, 11 October 2017, 09:09:34 AM. Little is known about sea creatures famous for their single tusk.

Can you imagine capturing a narwhal? That’s one way scientists in the Arctic study the mysterious and hard-to-find whales. Just off a rocky beach, they set out a whale-size net marked with a bright buoy. Because the sun shines 24 hours a day in the Arctic summer, researchers take shifts day and night to watch the buoy. When it wiggles and pulls, the person on watch might shout, “Whale in the net!”

That’s when the scientists put on cold-water survival gear called dry suits. Then they jump into a boat and head out to the net. If they have caught a narwhal, the first thing they do is bring it to the surface so it can breathe. Then they gently haul the speckled whale to shallow water, being careful not to damage its spectacular spiral tusk.

The scientists work quickly and quietly. They measure the animal, which is usually 13 to 20 feet long. They also help a veterinarian get samples of its skin and blood. Before releasing it, they attach a satellite transmitter to its dorsal ridge (the line along its backbone). For the next year, the transmitter will send data back to the scientists, helping them track the narwhal’s migration and diving patterns. The transmitter also sends information about water temperature and how salty the water is. Some transmitters record underwater sound.

“There is so much to learn about narwhals and their environment,” says research scientist Mari­anne Marcoux from Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “We don’t know much.”

Studying narwhals is tough because of the animals’ harsh habitat.

narwhal-exhibit-sheds-light-on-mysterious-underwater-mammal photo 1 “There is so much to learn about narwhals and their environment,” says researcher Marianne Marcoux. “We don’t know much.” (Gretchen Freund)

So what do we know about narwhals? A lot of what scientists know comes from the Inuit, a native Arctic people who have lived alongside narwhals for thousands of years. Scientists estimate there are only about 80,000 narwhals, which live in waters off northern Canada, Greenland and Russia, surviving on halibut, cod, shrimp and squid. They are listed as “near threatened” by the International Union of Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Some say the narwhals’ tusks inspired stories of unicorns. Slightly off-center, a male’s tusk (it’s a tooth that can grow 10 feet long) protrudes from its upper jaw, always spiraling to the left. Females usually don’t have tusks.

There are many theories about their purpose. The sensitive tusks may provide a narwhal information about water temperature. It may serve as a kind of wand used to stun fish to make them easier to eat. Other theories say the tusk is used for attracting females, fighting other males, breaking through ice or maybe fighting off predators such as killer whales.

“This is one of the least-known animals in the world,” says William Fitzhugh, the curator of a new exhibit about these marvelous mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

The exhibit, which Marcoux also helped create, includes a reproduction of a narwhal that seems ready to swim through the display. It also includes real narwhal tusks and skulls and carved Inuit artwork. You can measure yourself against the height of a narwhal tusk and listen to the underwater sounds of the Arctic. There’s also recent scientific information about narwhals and Inuit stories of life in the Arctic.

“The Arctic is a vast and untouched part of our world,” Fitz­hugh says.

Visiting this narwhal exhibit is a great way to see what this part of the world is like and feel a part of it.

If you go

What: “Narwhal: Revealing an Arctic Legend,” an exhibit about narwhals and life in the rapidly changing Arctic.

Where: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, 1000 Constitution Avenue NW, Washington.

When: Through 2019.

Cost: Free.

For more information: Ask a parent to visit naturalhistory.si.edu/exhibits/narwhal.

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