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What is the Function of Narwhal's Tooth?

Michael Anissimov
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The narwhal is a small, rare arctic whale with a very long (~7-10 ft, or 2-3 meters) tooth that resembles the horn of the fabled unicorn. It has been used to adorn palaces and royal scepters around the world, from England to Japan. The ground tooth of a narwhal has (falsely) been said to cure various diseases. But until recently, the function of this tooth has been a mystery -- the means of its evolution defies normal models of the way mammalian teeth develop.

In 2005, Harvard School of Dental Medicine researcher Martin Nweeia determined the function of the tooth. It acts as a sophisticated hydrodynamic sensing device, capable of measuring temperature, water particle density, salinity, and other information. Although one would imagine a tooth that looks like a horn to be rigid, it has a delicate, membrane-covered surface saturated with millions of sensory nerves. These neural networks feed directly into the central nervous system of the narwhal, giving it a uniquely powerful sensory apparatus for survival in the arctic environment.

The tooth of the narwhal is unique among mammals, which partially explains why it has taken science so long to figure it out. The spiral tusk morphology is unique to narwhals, for example. Also, the tusk is common among males but rare among females, an unusual asymmetry for mammalian teeth.

Before the purpose of the tusk was decisively determined, a number of theories were advanced to explain its purpose. These included a tube for breathing, a heat sink, a swimming rudder, a display for mating, and even a tool to break ice. Because the animal is so rare and lives in such cold areas, there has been a lack of samples with which to make theories. A collaborative effort between Nweeia and the Inuit people of Canada led to a large catalog of behavior of the animals, helping the final determination of the tusk's function.

All Things Nature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All Things Nature contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By anon160818 — On Mar 17, 2011

Whoever wrote this hasn't asked any narwhal biologists about the function of the tusk. All of them disagree that it has a sensory function. The dentist who made that claim has not offered any proof; it's just a wild hypothesis.

By luna49 — On Nov 16, 2009

It's curious that the tooth is so much more common in males than in females - if it helps survival, one would think that more of the females that had one would survive to be able to pass their genes on ...

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All Things Nature contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics,...
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