The secret of the narwhal

01 June, 2023

The narwhal is a relatively small arctic toothed whale (4 – 5 meters). It is shy and typically lives in the drift ice around the northern ice cap, where it can live up to 100 years. This makes the narwhal particularly vulnerable to the severe climate changes that are taking place around the Arctic. The Inuit have traditionally hunted narwhals both for their valuable tusk, fine meat and not least, for the tasty skin. Mattak, as the skin is called, is sold today for up to 500 Danish kroner per kilo, which makes the narwhal a valuable prey. In south-east Greenland it is threatened with extinction. In addition, research in recent years shows that the narwhal contains high levels of mercury.

The narwhal’s food varies with the seasons and consists of different kinds of fish and molluscs, which it often fetches at a depth of 800 meters. It belongs to the group of toothed whales, but ironically has no teeth inside its mouth. The males, on the other hand, have the very characteristic, up to 3 meter long spirally twisted tooth. Both females and males initially have two sets of this forward tooth embedded in the upper jaw and, with few exceptions, only the male develops the extreme tooth that erupts from the upper lip.

The function of the tusk is unclear, and many more or less plausible proposals have been launched. Among other things, that it was used to produce sounds with a strength that can paralyze prey. Another suggestion is that the tooth is a catching and fighting tool. Today, most people believe in the hypothesis that the tooth has a so-called secondary sexual character, in the same way as the horns of elk bulls and the lion’s mane. That is to say, the primary function of the tooth is to signal to females and rivals that “I am healthy and strong, so feel free to mate with me, but don’t argue”.

A mystery that puzzles the researchers is that the tooth always develops from the left predisposition and that it is always spirally twisted to the left. It is believed that the spiral structure ensures that the tooth grows straight. A bent tooth would cause large energy losses due to increased water resistance.

Because the teeth grow throughout the life of the whale, new layers are added to the tooth every year, much like in a tree. Depending on the whale’s living environment, age, sex and diet, different chemicals are deposited in the layers that are formed, and which can provide information about the whale’s previous life. In this video report we learn more about how a Danish/Swedish/Swiss research team is now trying to find a method to use even teeth from museums as an archive from the whales’ past lives.

Today, it is believed that the myth of the unicorn originated in Asia several thousand years ago. Perhaps the rhinoceros was the origin of the myth? Our European unicorn, on the other hand, is of more recent date and has been depicted as a beautiful white horse with goat’s hooves and a long spiral tooth in its forehead. This unicorn had magical healing powers and could neutralize poisons. However, it was very shy and could only be caught by luring it to itself with the help of a fair maiden.

But how did the unicorn’s long horn come to be recorded as almost identical to a narwhal tooth. It is suspected that the reason for this is that Vikings in the 9th century brought narwhal teeth from Greenland to Europe.

During the Middle Ages, the myth of the unicorn gained great importance in Europe and narwhal teeth were considered extremely valuable and were paid for with more than their weight in gold. In the film, we learn how Fredrik III, who was king of Denmark during the 17th century, had a royal throne built from only narwhal teeth. It earned the king invaluable respect among his colleagues in Europe as they believed the throne was made of unicorn horns. The throne still stands completely intact at Rosenborg Castle in the middle of Copenhagen and is also newly renovated. Perhaps one of the summer’s excursion destinations?

Reportage: Lars Öivind Knutsen 
Photography: Lars Öivind Knutsen, Roberto Lo Monaco, Frederik Wolff Teglhus, Göran Ehlmé

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