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Leave it to a dentist to discover the narwhal's secret. The arctic cetacean's single tusk can grow up to nine feet long, and until recently was a mystery to biologists. Was it a weapon? Was it purely ostentatious, like a peacock's feathers? Or is it a result of the narwhal's clearly having evolved from the fabled unicorn?
Well, that horn is a mystery no longer. A team of dentists from the Harvard School of Dental Medicine have discovered that the faux unicorn-horn is, in the slightly titillating terminology of William Broad's Science Times writeup, "a sensory organ of exceptional size and sensitivity".
The scientists say the nerves can detect subtle changes of temperature, pressure, particle gradients and probably much else, giving the animal unique insights.
... "As far as I can see, it's a unique thing," Dr. [James] Mead [curator of marine mammals at the Smithsonian] said in an interview. "It's something new. It just goes to show just how little we know about whales and dolphins."
...He noted that no theory about the tusk's function ever envisioned its use as a sensory organ.
But despite new revelations about its actual purpose, the narwhal's tusk has long been a source of fascination, lies and outrageous prices. Wikipedia says:
Some medieval Europeans believed Narwhal tusks to be horns from the legendary unicorn. Considered to have magic powers, tusks sold for many times their weight in gold. Unicorns are often depicted with horns with a spiral pattern markedly similar to the narwhal's tusk.
With stories of their existence reaching the mainstream scientific community only through those trading with Inuit hunters, the species remained a legend to temperate-zone cultures until the nineteenth century, when their high-north habitat was first visited by Europeans.
And the Times article adds some other salient anecdotes:
In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth received a tusk valued at Â£10,000 - the cost of a castle. Austrian lore holds that Kaiser Karl the Fifth paid off a large national debt with two tusks. In Vienna, the Hapsburgs had one made into a scepter heavy with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds.
NPR also aired a brief feature on Martin Nweeia, the practicing dentist who led the team to its discovery. His " Narwhal Tooth Expedition was a product of his own "pure, passionate interest," which in my opinion is the finest basis for scientific research that exists. From his description of an encounter with a group of narwhals:
It was as if you had gone to some grand party where you were invisible. I felt like i shouldnâ€™t even talk or say anything or move, just because I felt that if they somehow knew I had broken their trust, that my opportunity would be gone. ... I just did this out of pure, passionate interest. I kinda defied that old principle that Albert Einstein said that itâ€™s amazing that curiosity survives a formal education.