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In case you didn't know, not only are narwhals real, they're rad. Hank shares some little known facts about one of the least understood sea mammals, including some insights into why they're so hard to study, and what that big thing on its face is for!

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Sources: ** tusk is sensitive * *tusks
It's come to our attention here at SciShow that some people think that narwhals are not real, like unicorns, as in magical, mystical, mythical creatures.  But I'm here to tell you that they are really real and also really rad.

They take their name from the old Norse words for "corpse whale," apparently because their odd, mottled, gray skin was reminiscent of drowned sailors.  I pronounce it "nar-wall" but you can say "nar-whale" if you want because they are definitely whales.

Monodon monoceros are most closely related to their cousins the beluga, and share their love of cold water.  They are found almost exclusively in the arctic waters around Greenland, Canada, and Russia and are pretty elusive.

So what makes narwhals so cool?  Well how about the fact that they can't be held in captivity?  No one knows exactly why this is, especially considering beluga whales and dolphins seem to do just fine when kept in big tanks.  But whenever they're contained, they die within a couple of months.  This may partly be why narwhals have been so hard to study.  Then there's the fact that although they're pretty shrimpy in whale terms, with males reaching maybe 4 meters in length, narwhals are actually little chubbos.  Most non-arctic whales are about 20-30% blubber but, because they live in such cold water, narwhals are about 50% blubber.

Inuit hunters eat their layer of blubber and skin called "mattak" as a prized delicacy and they say it tastes like hazelnuts, which is pretty cool, I guess.  When you're having hazelnut ice cream, it's really narwhal flavored.

Let's cut to the chase; I know what you came here for.  What's up with that unique, prominent feature of the narwhal?  The huge, jousting lance shooting out of its face?  Sometimes referred to as a horn, really the thing is a tooth.  The craziest snaggle tooth ever.  All narwhals have just two front teeth.  But if you're a dude narwhal, one of those teeth grows from the upper jaw, shooting right through the upper lip where it keeps spiraling out to lengths of nearly 3 meters.  Rare, two-tusked males have even been seen, and a small percentage of nar-ladies grow long teeth, too.

There've been lots of theories about why narwhals evolved these giant head sticks.  Were they weapons against orcas or spears for stabbing halibut, or sound transmitters, or ice hole pokers?

Not so much any of those.

Recently, narwhal biologists, I mean human biologists who study narwhals, not biologists who are narwhals, made an incredible discovery that changed the way we thought about the tusk.  Turns out, it's an extraordinary sensory organ permeated by millions of super-sensitive nerve endings that thread from the tusk's core to its surface.  These nerves can send subtle changes in pressure, temperature, salinity, particle gradients, and who knows what else.  Imagine being able to sense a storm was coming by a tingle in your tooth and you begin to get a sense of how useful this thing is.

The one theory is that these readings help the animals tell if the ice is about to freeze, which is a vital thing to know considering narwhals follow their pray through narrow channels between ice flows and can become trapped and die if the ice shifts or freezes and locks them in.  And actually, the narwhals' total dependence on the movement of ice in arctic environments makes it one of the marine mammals that's most vulnerable to climate change.  But we can't let them go extinct!  They have to stick around for centuries to come to continue to mystify and amaze us!  Narwhals may not actually be magic, but they certainly are magnificent.  And, you know, they're also real, which is a perk.

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