Wow, a nine-foot long sensory organ. Hmmm, there’s a joke in here somewhere….
For centuries, the tusk of the narwhal has fascinated and baffled.
Narwhal tusks, up to nine feet long, were sold as unicorn horns in ages past, often for many times their weight in gold since they were said to possess magic powers. In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth received a tusk valued at £10,000 – the cost of a castle. Austrian lore holds that Kaiser Karl the Fifth paid off a large national debt with two tusks. In Vienna, the Hapsburgs had one made into a scepter heavy with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds.
Scientists have long tried to explain why a stocky whale that lives in arctic waters, feeding on cod and other creatures that flourish amid the pack ice, should wield such a long tusk. The theories about how the narwhal uses the tusk have included breaking ice, spearing fish, piercing ships, transmitting sound, shedding excess body heat, poking the seabed for food, wooing females, defending baby narwhals and establishing dominance in social hierarchies.
But a team of scientists from Harvard and the National Institute of Standards and Technology has now made a startling discovery: the tusk, it turns out, forms a sensory organ of exceptional size and sensitivity, making the living appendage one of the planet’s most remarkable, and one that in some ways outdoes its own mythology.
The find came when the team turned an electron microscope on the tusk’s material and found new subtleties of dental anatomy. The close-ups showed that 10 million nerve endings tunnel from the tusk’s core toward its outer surface, communicating with the outside world. The scientists say the nerves can detect subtle changes of temperature, pressure, particle gradients and probably much else, giving the animal unique insights.