A whale of a tale

Mystery surrounds the 'ice unicorn'

- July 24, 2007

Marie Auger-MŽthŽ with her trusty camera. (Marianne Marcoux)

Marie Auger-MŽthŽ admits to entertaining some romantic notions about the sea creature sheÕs long been fascinated with.

And no wonder. The narwhal and its spiraled tusk Ñ actually a tooth Ñ is the inspiration for the legend of the unicorn. So coveted was the fabled unicorn horn that Queen Elizabeth in the 16th century acquired one valued at 10,000 pounds Ð at the time, more than what a castle would cost. In Denmark, the royal throne is made of narwhal tusks, and, in Japan, two crossed narwhal teeth adorn the entrance to Kornikaku Palace.

ÒI had this idea that narwhals would be very elegant, very graceful,” says the Dalhousie University masterÕs student, a member of Hal WhiteheadÕs research group. ÒI actually find them to be a very funny species.”

Ms. Auger-MŽthŽ (BSc Ô05) and Marianne Marcoux, a PhD student from McGill University, spent last summer in CanadaÕs high Arctic and are about to embark on another summer of field research.

Photo essay: The Narwhal Project

She recalls her first glimpse of the narwhals from their camp on Koluktoo Bay, about a six-hour trip from the closest community of Pond Inlet on Baffin Island. A group of about 300 of the whales swam past Ñ Òa narwhal highway” Ñ and they could hear the air escaping from their blow holes.

ÒAll we heard was Ôpffft, pffffft, pfffft,Õ” she says, laughing. ÒThey make this farting noise. They were so loud theyÕd wake us up at night.”

There is a lot to learn about the mammals, which can weigh up 1,600 kg at maturity and dive to depths of 3,300 feet. But no one really knows how they communicate and socialize. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature categorizes the narwhal as Òinsufficiently known.”

Building on last seasonÕs research, Ms. Auger-MŽthŽ is developing a method to identify individual narwhals, based on the pattern of notches along their dorsal ridge. Her research involves taking photographs of the animals Ñ the research is sponsored by Nikon Ñ and comparing the photos to last yearÕs batch using a computer program sheÕs customized for the purpose.

ÒSeeing the animals is always exciting,” says the 25-year-old student from Montreal. ÒItÕs definitely better than sitting in front of the computer.”

Mystery molar

Another mystery about the animals is what that left front tooth Ñ it can grow to lengths of three metres in males Ñ is used for. Theories abound, including use as a weapon of aggression between males, to break ice, to spear food during hunting. One hypothesis, put forth by Harvard University dentist and explorer Martin Nweeia, suggests the tusk is a kind of sensory probe. 

In any case, itÕs coveted by collectors whoÕll pay in the thousands of dollars for one, especially since the trade in elephant ivory has been made illegal. Narwhal hunting remains an important source of food and cash income for residents of some coastal communities in the eastern Canadian Arctic and Greenland. The tusks, however, are supposed to be a by-product.

ItÕs a sensitive issue in the far north, where talk of quotas is despised and regarded as interference. Ms. Auger-MŽthŽ says part of their job involves explaining to hunters and trappers the nature of their research. They also learn a lot talking to Inuit elders, who have observed narwhals all their lives.

ÒItÕs us getting to know them and them getting to know us,” she says.


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