About Narwhal Tusk Research
Narwhal Discoveries, founded in the year 2000 as Narwhal Tusk Research, is a multi-national collaboration with an interdisciplinary approach that crosses the borders of biologic, chemical, physical and social science to discover the purpose and function of the erupted tusk of the narwhal. Thus far, 27 institutions worldwide and more than 48 scientists have combined their insights and backgrounds with 32 Inuit elders from the Eastern Canadian High Arctic and Western Greenland to assemble the pieces of this marine mammal puzzle that has eluded discovery for hundreds of years.

Investigators with myriad backgrounds in cellular biology, histology, anatomy, marine mammal science, dental medicine, evolutionary genetics and mathematics are currently analyzing narwhal teeth and their associated structures. Inuit elders with extensive experience as hunters and guides are continuing to provide Traditional Knowledge that describes behavioral and social characteristics of the narwhal.

Elders from four communities in Canada and Greenland have been interviewed in digital audio and video formats to record their insights, perceptions and observations based on hundreds of years of collective experience. Each of these parallel perceptions has shared points that contribute to, guide, and challenge past studies, and direct current findings about the tusk.
We gratefully acknowledge the myriad of institutions, organizations, museums, specialty equipment resources, companies, collaborating scientists, Inuit hunters and elders and expedition support personnel that were needed to complete this ongoing 12-year investigation.

The April 2014 issue of The Anatomical Record features an article detailing our research and findings. The following excerpt is from a review by Carl Zimmer – an award-winning science writer whose work appears frequently in the New York Times, National Geographic, and other publications – in “The Loom” on March 18, 2014.

“Martin Nweeia, a Connecticut dentist and a clinical instructor at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, has been traveling to the Arctic for fourteen years to study narwhals, and, in particular, their tusks. He’s given some scientific talks about his research over the years and published some details in book chapters. But now he and a team of colleagues from Harvard, the Smithsonian, the University of Minnesota, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and elsewhere have published a detailed account of their studies on the narwhal tusk in the Anatomical Record. They conclude that the tusk is a sense organ that lets male narwhals perceive the ocean, possibly helping them find mates or food.

“Part of their argument is based on the anatomy of the tusk. Rather than being a solid hunk of bone, it’s shot through with nerves. And it appears specially adapted to bring those nerves nearly in contact with sea water. In us and in other mammals, teeth are armored in sheets of enamel. Narwals don’t have enamel on their tusks. Instead, the surface of the tusk is covered in fine channels that can bring water down into the tusk’s interior, close to the nerve endings there. And some of those nerve endings have the structure you find in nerves sensitive to pain.

“To see if the narwhals used this intricate anatomy to sense their surroundings, Nweeia and his colleagues captured live narwhals off of Baffin Island and slipped a conical jacket over their tusks. The scientists then pumped water into the jacket, either with a high or a low level of salt. Electrodes that Nweeia’s team put on the skin of the narwhals measured their heart rate through the experiment, which only lasted less than half an hour per animal.

“When the scientists put salt water into the tusk jacket, they recorded an average heartbeat of 60.42 beats per minute. But when they poured in fresh water, the heart beat more slowly, at 52.56 beats per minute. The difference was statistically significant, and the scientists took it to mean that the narwhals could sense the difference between salt and fresh water with their tusk alone. It’s possible that when the narwhals swim into salty water, they feel a pain akin to a toothache. It’s also possible that other nerve endings in the tusk sense other things, such as temperature or pressure.”