The Unicorns of the Sea - Oceana USA
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April 29, 2009

The Unicorns of the Sea

During recess in grade school, I used to tie a sweater around my waist for a tail, use my pointer finger as a horn, and gallop around the playground, neighing and tossing about my mane. Yes, I was THAT girl who pretended she was a unicorn. I’ve since changed and fulfilled my interest in fantasy creatures by reading science fiction books and watching movies, but I don’t have to travel to the land of make-believe to learn about mysterious animals with impressive tusks. I just have to travel to the ice clogged inlets of Arctic Greenland, via this month’s issue of Smithsonian Magazine. Little is known about these “unicorns of the sea”- biologist and narwhal specialist Kristin Laidre speculates that “we probably know a lot more about the brains of grasshoppers than we do about narwhals.” Check out the fascinating article for a history of the narwhal, how Laidre (sometimes) successfully tags narwhals, and why any of this is important. Here’s one great paragraph about the narwhal’s tusk: “The whales’ most dazzling feature, of course, is the swizzle-stick tusk that sprouts from their upper left jaw. Though the whales’ scientific name is Monodon monoceros, “one tooth, one horn,” an occasional male has two tusks (the NMNH has two rare specimens) and only 3 percent of females have a tusk at all. The solitary fang, which is filled with dental pulp and nerves like an ordinary tooth, can grow thick as a lamppost and taller than a man, and it has a twist. On living whales, it’s typically green with algae and alive with sea lice at its base. No one’s sure precisely how or why it evolved—it has been called a weapon, an ice pick, a kind of dousing rod for fertile females, a sensor of water temperature and salinity, and a lure for prey. Herman Melville joked that it was a letter opener.” As for me, the next time I’m swimming along with my hand against my forehead, using my finger as my tusk, and people give me strange looks, I’ll just inform them that I’m pretending to be a very small, very real unicorn of the sea.