Published: Mon, May 15, 2017
Science | By Hubert Green

So we now know why narwhals have tusks, and it's pretty violent

So we now know why narwhals have tusks, and it's pretty violent

The new footage however provides new insights into the goal of the Narwhal's iconic tusk.

The video was captured by documentary filmmaker Adam Ravetch using drones based out of a DFO arctic research camp and shows the narwhals feeding on a school of cod. This behavior immobilizes the fish, making them easier to prey upon.

However, the way they use the tusks might not be quite what you're imagining.

Brandon Laforest, senior specialist of Arctic species and ecosystems with WWF-Canada, told National Geographic that witnessing narwhal feeding habits has been almost impossible without the drones.

It's more likely that possessing a "stun gun" is a welcome perk for male whales, who rely on the tusk more prominently in other ways.

In a May 12 news release, the World Wildlife Fund says the video is significant because it helps unravel the mystery of the narwhal tusk and shows that narwhals feed in their summering grounds.

Now that we've witnessed this behavior for the first time, it's become clear that the narwhal tusk is a multipurpose appendage that really was worth the cost of evolving the most unusual tooth in nature. Because of the remote regions in which narwhals live, visual confirmation of their behavior has been hard to ascertain. Previous aerial observations were conducted by small planes that often provided an incomplete view or frightened the animals. Some believe that these tusks act like sensors that allow the whales to detect changes in water pressure, temperature, and salinity while other suggest that narwhale use their tusks to make holes in sea ice to determine its thickness. Nerve endings cover the horn for sensory perception.

"They can feel their surroundings similar to how a human's broken tooth would have feeling", said Marcoux.

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 right canine stays embedded, and no other teeth protrude from the inside of their mouths; narwhals instead use suction to swallow their prey whole.

WWF-Canada president David Miller said that the footage will have an important role in the future of conservation efforts to save the narwhals.

One of the biggest threats narwhals face is industrial development. Noise produced by ships can also interfere with their ability to communicate.

Every summer, Canada's Lancaster Sound is home to more than 80,000 narwhals, estimated to be three-quarters of the world's population.

The species are now threatened by climate change and industrial development.

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