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Unicorn Whales' Sonar Secrets: Narwhal Is the World’s Best Animal Navigator

Nov 14, 2016 04:10 AM EST
Narwhal's Horn makes it Best Animal Navigator
The narwhal tusk—most commonly found on males—is actually an enlarged tooth with sensory capability and up to 10 million nerve endings inside. Some narwhals have up to two tusks, while others have none. The spiraled tusk juts from the head and can grow as long at 10 feet. (Photo by Paul Nicklen Photography)

Narwhals are a species of toothed whale that are most closely related to the beluga whale. The males have evolved an extra long left canine tooth that can grow up to 2.7 meters or 9 feet long and bursts through the upper lip and protrudes from the head like the horn of a unicorn. In a research published in PLOS One, it was revealed that narwhals have the most directional sonar of any species on Earth.

Echolocation, also referred to as bio sonar, is used by many species of marine mammals. Many dolphins and whales use bio sonar to navigate the ocean without straining their eyes. A team led by Kristin Laidre, an ecologist at the University of Washington, decided to investigate the echolocation skills of narwhals by placing waterproof sound-recorders or hydrophones at 11 pack ice sites in Baffin Bay, West Greenland.

Given the living conditions of narwhals in the extreme Arctic waters under large blocks of ice, Laidre wondered if perhaps there was more to narwhals than meets the eye. "You don't see open water for miles and miles and suddenly there's a small crack, and you'll see narwhals in it," Laidre stated in an interview with The New York Times. "I've always wondered how do these animals navigate under that, and how do they find these small openings to breathe?"

It was observed that narwhals produce clicking sounds and listen to the echoes to reconstruct their surroundings based on how those sound waves bounce off nearby objects or organisms. Laidre and her team discovered that instead of using their sonar skills like a floodlight to take in a vast array of objects all at once, narwhal clicks were extremely directional, allowing them to hone in on things like a flashlight.

Laidre and her team now have to figure out how to discover more narwhal secrets to help conserve the species in an already warming environment.

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