Thursday, December 5, 2013

A unicorn whale? That can't be a thing.

This week, I watched the movie “Elf” to get into the Christmas spirit. Among the highlights:
  • “You stink. You don’t smell like Santa. You smell like beef and cheese."
  • “We elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.”
  • "Have you seen these toilets? They're GINORMOUS!"

Buddy the Elf finds out he is a human living amongst Santa's elves, explaining why he always felt he just didn't belong. Buddy realizes he must set out to find out who he really is, and that means finding his birth father. As Buddy leaves the North Pole to find his dad in New York, he sets adrift on an iceberg. As he pushes off, a Narwhal surfaces.

When I saw this scene, I realized I didn’t know what the heck a Narwhal was. I knew it must be a marine mammal, a kind of whale. But a unicorn whale? That can’t be a thing.

A quick internet search showed me that they are real. Narwhals and Beluga Whales are the only extant species within the family Monodontidae- latin for “singular toothed.” They live in the Arctic Ocean (hats off to the writers of “Elf.” They got their Narwhal facts straight.) They were originally described by good ole’ Linneaus and get their common name from the Norse word for “corpse.” Apparently, their grey, speckled skin reminded people of dead sailor corpses. Romantic, no?

Let’s talk about that horn. Really, that horn is what made me wonder if Narwhals were real. I mean, it’s not uncommon to see mammals with paired, keratinized outgrowths like horns and antlers. And the rhinoceros even has a singular horn on its snout. But a marine mammal? How is that efficient when swimming? In a watery, swimming environment, how would a singular horn function? Male to male combat would be hard to imagine, as sheep and deer are on ground and can brace themselves against impact from one another.

Come to find out, the “horn” is no horn at all. It is a tooth, or a tusk, that grows through the whale’s lip. And only the males have it. It grows from the left side of the upper jaw, while the right canine tooth remains an undeveloped nub. (Although, it is worth mentioning that 0.2% of male Narwhals develop both the left and right tusk). And to add weirdness to an already weird situation, the tusk is highly enervated. They can feel things with it.

Narwhals tusking. (wikicommons)
Naturalists have debated for a long time what purpose the Narwhal’s tooth serves. They have rarely been observed fighting each other with the tusks, nor attacking other species or using it to break sea ice. They have been seen participating in a group activity known as “tusking,” where males get together and rub tusks.

It is largely held that the tusk is a secondary sexual characteristic, meaning it serves little physiological purpose and exists almost completely to attract mates and establish mating rights. Kind of like body hair on human men. It exists as a secondary sexual characteristic- not really that useful, but attractive to us ladies on a primal level.

Males with big tusks get preferred mating rights with the female whales (fewhales! new word.) of their choice. And the tusking thing probably exists to establish hierarchy amongst males.

I hope this post weirded you out as much as it did me. Narwhals, though fascinating and intricately evolved, make me sort of uncomfortable.

But, if they are as nice as the one in Elf, then maybe they aren’t so bad.

Hope you find your dad.