Kristin Laidre: The Elusive Narwhal
I am a marine mammal biologist, which is focused on Arctic species. Narwhals are a very good example of an Arctic species, but I also study other animals that live in the Arctic, Bowhead Whales, Balucca Whales, different species of seals, seabirds and things like that. While this project is focused on Narwhals, in the future I may be studying other animals that live at high latitudes.
The Narwhal is a medium sized tooth-whale that lives only in the Arctic, they actually only exist around the Canadian Arctic and east and west Greenland. So their very restricted in their distribution. Not very much is known about Narwhals, they have not been well studied and that is simply because they are very difficult to study, they live in remote places, far from civilizations, they live in a habitat that is dark for half the year, covered in ice for half the year and not easy to access. So any information we can collect on the species is of interest to biologists or marine mammal scientists.
In this study we interested in studying both the effects of climate change on Narwhals, how will reduced ice, or higher temperatures in the Arctic effect them - as well as using the Narwhal as an oceanographic platform. Which means the instruments we place on these whales actually collect data about the ocean for us. So we essentially use them as our assistants, collecting data for us in ice-covered months when oceanographers can't get out there.
Narwhals are an interesting species because they are one of the deepest diving marine mammals. When Narwhals reach their wintering ground in Baffin Bay in Davis Strait they make dives of over eighteen hundred meters, which is greater than fifty-four hundred feet. They essentially start at the surface and dive for approximately 25 or 30 minutes down to the bottom of Baffin Bay where they feed on flatfish called Greenland Halibut. Studying these animal's diving behavior is very interesting for a biologist because not that many animals can sustain such intense pressures below the surface of the water and stay under the water for so long.
So the Narwhal is best known for its tusk. The tusk is basically a bit tooth that grows out of the left upper lip of the male whales. The tusk can be almost three meters long and is extremely heavy - it is a spiral tooth. There are many legends about the tusk of the Narwhal - it is essentially the origin of the myth of the Unicorn as European whalers that were in the Arctic would catch Narwhals and bring the tusk back to Europe and made up great stories about what kind of animals they were attached to. But in terms of the biology of the animal the tusk is really used for social structure, social system, its used in dominance hierarchies and sort of established the ranks of makes within the pods, within the populations.