Scientific Expedition Reveals Sounds From the “Unicorns of the Sea”!

A new opportunity to learn more about narwhals, the fascinating and enigmatic sea creatures that have been a mystery for centuries.

Jun 15, 2020

As human beings, we have always been attracted to the unknown.This fascination also applies to nature, and there are still countless animal species that remain a mystery, even to the most dedicated researchers. So each new discovery is an eye-opener, and deserves to be shared and celebrated. 

This is the case with narwhals, also known as the unicorns of the sea. These mystifying, shy  creatures were recently recorded summering in Arctic glacial fjords in northwest Greenland during a successful expedition. The research was conducted by two scientists from Hokkaido University in Japan and published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, from AGU Publications (the American Geophysical Union). It describes their ecosystem as one of the “noisiest soundscapes in the ocean”. Because of this, scientists have struggled for decades to capture their acoustic signals.

Narwhals, normally found deep below the Arctic Ocean surface, and one of the more enigmatic creatures on the planet given the tricky habitat that they live in, have until now been barely accessible to scientists on field trips. This is why this discovery is such a milestone.

The research revealed that these animals use a whistling sound as a social call for contacting their peers. Their “click “sound, on the other hand, helps them find food through echolocation: the closer they get to the food, the more frequently they click, which creates a type of buzz.

The most noticeable characteristic of narwhals is probably their unusual appearance. The male presents an iconic spiraling tusk, which is in fact a tooth that can grow up to three meters in length! Researchers are not entirely sure what it is for, but here’s an intriguing fact: evidence reveals that narwhal tusks might be the basis for the mythology that surrounds unicorns, those fascinating legendary quadrupeds.

But these horned whales are even more unique than their sounds and looks would suggest. A separate study conducted by researchers at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, shows that the genetic diversity of these animals is surprisingly low. Despite this alleged disadvantage, which has always been considered a bad omen for the future of a species, narwhals have done pretty well for thousands of years, with no signs of becoming an endangered population. This fact challenges scientists to rethink the established idea that genetic diversity always needs to be present for a species to thrive. 

Unfortunately, it's not all roses and unicorns for these cute sea creatures, however. Since they only live in the Arctic, they are extremely vulnerable to the impact of climate change on their environment. And their fate in a warmer Artic is unclear. 

 
 
 
 
 
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Photo by @BrianSkerry and @nansenweber | A family of narwhals gathers on the surface in the waters of the Canadian high Arctic. The narwhal is called the unicorn whale due to its tusk, which is actually a canine tooth that protrudes from the animal’s lip. Male narwhal tusks can grow to lengths of nearly nine feet (three meters). On the right side of this photo, we see a narwhal calf riding on the back of its mom. Since access to this species has historically been limited due to the challenges of working in the places they live, much remains unknown about the intricacies of their lives. But based on what we do know, it seems clear that they have rich cultures and complex social relationships. Follow @BrianSkerry for more images of ocean wildlife. #narwhal #arctic #whales

A post shared by National Geographic (@natgeo) on

What we do know is that research can help us understand these remarkable mammals, and that it’s up to us to contribute and keep narwhal populations safe by protecting their habitat from harmful human activities and global warming. It’s the least we can do for these lovely beings that amaze us with their extraordinary sounds, their enigmatic looks, and their unique genetics, which make them a symbol of resilience.

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DAIANA BROJT, CONTRIBUTOR
With a love for fashion, technology, self-development, nature and communication, Daiana is a freelance writer. She is the creator of an online community platform dedicated to providing inspiration and information on trends, developments and positive impact initiatives in the world of Sustainable Fashion.