Join 3,516 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Horny _and_ sensitive!
December 13, 2005 10:51 AM   Subscribe

The narwhal, often termed "The Unicorn of the Sea," has a really odd tusk. It's long, spiraled, and there's only one of 'em per animal. Its purpose has been disputed for ages, but at long last, it seems that the answer has been found. And it's pretty damn cool.
posted by greatgefilte (69 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
Very cool! Thanks for posting this.
posted by Eekacat at 10:56 AM on December 13, 2005


Awesome. I've always hoped they'd figure it out. I hate mysteries! Up next: Chupacabra!!
posted by mr.curmudgeon at 10:57 AM on December 13, 2005


Interesting - nice work on the title too. heheh...
posted by stumcg at 10:58 AM on December 13, 2005


What can't animals do?
posted by Mr_Zero at 10:59 AM on December 13, 2005


Very neat. Many animals have fleshy and delicate sensory organs. These guys just encase theirs in their teeth and thrust them out into the environment. Cool.
posted by painquale at 11:00 AM on December 13, 2005


wait. what?
posted by chupacabra at 11:04 AM on December 13, 2005


I think it's cool that they finally discovered what the tusk can do. But I'm a little underwhelmed by the actual discovery. It's a sensory organ... that detects temperature, salinity and so forth? I suppose that's pretty neat, but I could have guessed that much. It's not exactly unique in it's purpose or anything. I'm sure I could come up with other uses that would have really been "pretty damn cool".
posted by Witty at 11:05 AM on December 13, 2005


Thanks for the informative post. I remember that scene from Elf where the norwhal rose from the deep, in somewhat menacing fashion, only to wish Buddy the Elf well as he was leaving for NYC. I had often wondered: WTF was that thing supposed to be?

Now that I know the answer to this question that's been bugging me for the last year, I can focus on my job.
posted by psmealey at 11:05 AM on December 13, 2005


Tusk
posted by grateful at 11:06 AM on December 13, 2005


I think it's pretty damn cool. Thanks for the post.
posted by Staggering Jack at 11:08 AM on December 13, 2005


Good grief, Witty, were you expecting it to shoot lasers? I know that I sure as heck don't have an organ that detects salinity and temperature in order to lead me to food and shelter in Arctic waters. This really is neat.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:14 AM on December 13, 2005


...and there's only one of 'em per animal.

Unless there are two.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:14 AM on December 13, 2005


"the tusk, it turns out, forms a sensory organ of exceptional size and sensitivity..."

And I bet you the tusks would be longer if the Narwhal didn't live in such cold, arctic waters!
posted by mr.curmudgeon at 11:19 AM on December 13, 2005


awesome.
posted by shoepal at 11:19 AM on December 13, 2005


I know that I sure as heck don't have an organ that detects salinity and temperature in order to lead me to food and shelter in Arctic waters.

Hey, we don't want to hear about your inadequacies.
posted by Elpoca at 11:19 AM on December 13, 2005


And yes, this is very cool!
posted by Elpoca at 11:19 AM on December 13, 2005


Good grief? No I wasn't expecting it to shoot lasers. But that's my point. It's cool... but not THAT cool. Would have been coolER had they discovered it was used for something that no one here would have guessed. That's all. For science, it's AWESOME that they discovered the tusk's purpose. For me, it's only sorta kinda awesome.
posted by Witty at 11:19 AM on December 13, 2005


Very awesome. I would have totally missed this if not for this post. And, I was kind of depressed this afternoon, and this tusk thing seems to have turned that around. Narwhal tusks: Better than Prozac!
posted by OmieWise at 11:20 AM on December 13, 2005


Witty writes "Would have been coolER had they discovered it was used for something that no one here would have guessed."

I'm not getting how you would have "guessed" the tusk's purpose. No one in the field had expected it to function as a sensory organ. A tooth with this kind of functionality is absolutely unique and unprecedented.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:26 AM on December 13, 2005


I suppose that's pretty neat, but I could have guessed that much.

Yeah, sure you could.
posted by odinsdream at 11:29 AM on December 13, 2005


I mean, wouldn't you rather have heard that the purpose of the tusk really was for impaling large arctic prey? Obviously, there was no chance of that. But it would still be "cooler". How about... the whale draws in salt water through the tusk where it is desalinated BECAUSE, unknown to science until now, the narwhal can only survive on fresh water. Or maybe, the tusk helps focus sonar-like impulses into prey-stunning beams... from distances up to a 1/4 mile. Much cooler.

on preview:

I'm not saying I would have guessed the tusk's purpose because I know better. I'm just saying, if someone asked me/you to make 5 guesses as to it's purpose, I'm sure someone would have come up with "sensory device". I'm not trying to take away from the science and hard work that it took to discover this fact. But I'd be surprised if the hypothesis had eluded science altogether.
posted by Witty at 11:31 AM on December 13, 2005


The article makes it sound like nobody ever thought to look at a narwhal tusk with an electron microscope before. That can't be true, can it? Or maybe the problem is me, and my inner 10-year-old's belief that scientists have looked at everything with electron microscopes.
posted by furiousthought at 11:33 AM on December 13, 2005


this is so, very cool. and i love that a dentist figured it out. a dentist in the arctic. what'll they discover next - an island of misfit toys?
posted by lapolla at 11:34 AM on December 13, 2005


Or maybe, the tusk helps focus sonar-like impulses into prey-stunning beams... from distances up to a 1/4 mile.

Isnt that another way of saying you expected it to shoot lasers? :)
posted by vacapinta at 11:35 AM on December 13, 2005


The scientists say the nerves can detect subtle changes of temperature....

Big deal- my teeth do that, too. As long as you consider the coldness of ice cream to be subtle.

Joking aside, this is incredibly cool. But no 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea references?

On preview: furiousthought Looking at things with electron microscopes can be quite difficult, depending on 1) the type of electron microscope (transmission or scanning), 2) the sample itself, and 3) what you're looking for.
posted by JMOZ at 11:36 AM on December 13, 2005


I would have totally missed this if not for this post
Gosh, and to think it's been in the echo chamber for HOURS now... perhaps you need some sort of newstusk...
posted by DenOfSizer at 11:38 AM on December 13, 2005


I know scientists that have looked at me with electron microscopes.
posted by oddman at 11:39 AM on December 13, 2005


This thread is almost an hour old and no one has made a B-52s reference yet?! For shame, people!
posted by Dr. Wu at 11:43 AM on December 13, 2005


Definitely awesome. Thanks for the posts and the links.
posted by billysumday at 11:43 AM on December 13, 2005


Coolest post ever. Thank you.
posted by marxchivist at 11:43 AM on December 13, 2005


Coolest post ever. Thank you.

OK... settle down Beavis.
posted by Witty at 11:44 AM on December 13, 2005


I would have guessed it was an ice drill. But a tricorder is even better.

Good post. Excellent title.
posted by justkevin at 11:45 AM on December 13, 2005


I didn't know about all the weird unicorn history. People thought unicorn horns had some connection to Christ?
posted by mathowie at 11:46 AM on December 13, 2005


Interesting topic; thanks. (I'm stopping short of "coolest post ever" in favor of "definitely didn't suck.")
posted by gohlkus at 11:47 AM on December 13, 2005


Woah. I've been using mine to get ice out of the trays when I'm drinking. Now I know! Thanks!
posted by carsonb at 11:50 AM on December 13, 2005


The dentist was on npr this morning and he sounded pretty excited about the whole thing.
posted by bluesky43 at 11:50 AM on December 13, 2005


Wasn't it common knowledge that unicorn horns detected virginity? So this doesn't seem that far off...
posted by Larzarus at 11:55 AM on December 13, 2005


what, no ID comments?
posted by NationalKato at 11:59 AM on December 13, 2005


I love this picture where all the narwhales look like they are either toasting one another or having a boner fight.

(middle picture)
posted by Falconetti at 11:59 AM on December 13, 2005


Narwhals are known for their "tusking" behavior, when males rub tusks. Because of the tactile sensory ability of the tusk surface, the whales are likely experiencing a unique sensation.
So they're going Oxford style, giving the ol Princeton rub, swordfighting, in the frottage cottage...
...I'll stop now.

Nifty post.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:01 PM on December 13, 2005


Well my tusk leads me to.. trouble.
posted by dickasso at 12:32 PM on December 13, 2005


4 out of 5 narwhals recommend Sensodyne.
posted by easternblot at 12:35 PM on December 13, 2005


These magnificent creatures are ideally suited to save humanity from the results of its own stupidity :

With their built in salinity / temperature gauges, Narwhals can be trained to hone in on areas of downwelling in the North Atlantic ocean circulation pattern. We'll train them from birth to have a special concern for maintaining "optimal" salinity in downwelling ocean regions and set them loose with giant salt shakers on their backs - they'll also have been trained to come 'a running to a special signal, for salt recharging and tasty fish treats.

These "salt-shaker Narwhals" will hone in on thermohaline downwelling areas at risk for shutdown because of added freshwater from melting Greenland and too much rain - we'll train the whales to dance around vigorously to shake out their salt packs in areas of warm water with lower than optimal salinity.

This is a sure bet. What could go wrong. The whales, the whales !
posted by troutfishing at 12:47 PM on December 13, 2005


Pretty funny: Yes, My Tusk Is Actually A Sensory Organ. I’d Still Trade It For Legs, Or An Ipod
posted by billysumday at 12:49 PM on December 13, 2005


That's pretty damn cool, but it still doesn't address the TRUE narwhal mystery: do they in fact make that 'EEEE rrrrr EEEE rrrrt' sound like in the B-52's Rock Lobster?
posted by davelog at 12:51 PM on December 13, 2005


Now they're going to start chopping the tips off so they can't have too much fun with them.
posted by pmbuko at 12:53 PM on December 13, 2005


That's pretty damn cool, but it still doesn't address the TRUE narwhal mystery: do they in fact make that 'EEEE rrrrr EEEE rrrrt' sound like in the B-52's Rock Lobster?

That's still a mystery, but it is known that they all have matching towels.
posted by dr_dank at 1:12 PM on December 13, 2005


This is really cool. Fills me with wonder at the complexity of the natural world and what natural selection can produce.

Too bad all the school children in Kansas are learning that the origin of the narwhal's tusk is that god designed it that way.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 1:13 PM on December 13, 2005


This is really cool.
posted by bshort at 1:13 PM on December 13, 2005


Want a tusk? There's two for sale on eBay.. And even a replica...
posted by dty1 at 1:42 PM on December 13, 2005


The article makes it sound like nobody ever thought to look at a narwhal tusk with an electron microscope before. That can't be true, can it?

From my reading, it was the fact that a fresh sample that hadn't been dried or bleached was used.
posted by odinsdream at 1:48 PM on December 13, 2005


So they want almost $10,000 or more for these things and can't even show us a picture?
posted by Witty at 1:49 PM on December 13, 2005


Speaking of pictures...



Well, awl-right good buddeh. It's possible this guy thinks he's posing for the cover of a metal album or something.
posted by Witty at 1:52 PM on December 13, 2005


I'm not saying I would have guessed the tusk's purpose because I know better. I'm just saying, if someone asked me/you to make 5 guesses as to it's purpose, I'm sure someone would have come up with "sensory device". I'm not trying to take away from the science and hard work that it took to discover this fact. But I'd be surprised if the hypothesis had eluded science altogether.

Not to beat up witty, but no - no-one who's studied these had any inkling that the teeth could be a sensory structure. Teeth just, um, don't do that. Consider all mammals - none do this. Consider all dentate fish - none do this. Consider all arthropods - well, they don't have teeth. But they still don't do it. In mammals, at least, the nerves are more or less vestigial - if you feel them, something's wrong.

No, this is pretty stunning. It's not surprising in the sense that bizarre biology is rarely surprising just because it's bizarre (it's ALL bizarre). But it certainly was unexpected.
posted by metaculpa at 2:29 PM on December 13, 2005


My alternate title for this was Yeah, but can Ron Jeremy do this?
posted by greatgefilte at 3:06 PM on December 13, 2005


I heard this on NPR this morning and it totally made sense. What could be more sensitive than a big tooth with the pulp on the outside? Teeth are damn sensitive.
posted by scarabic at 3:18 PM on December 13, 2005


I think everyone is missing my point (at least most anyway). I am not trying to undermine the magnificence of this discovery. In the scientific/dental/biological/etc. world, this discovery is fantastic... and everyone involved has the right to be proud of said discovery. I congratulate them on a job well-done.

But for me, it's not that exciting. My tongue can detect salinity. As well as a narwhal's tusk? Probably not. My teeth can detect coldness. As well as a narwhal's tusk? Probably not. Can I even compare what I can do to what a narwhal's tusk can do? Certainly not. But at the end of the day, we're still talking about salinity and temperature detection. Wow.

If there was a lemur out there somewhere with a third eye in the back of it's head that had science stumped for generations... then suddenly they figured out that the eye had the ability to see heat unlike any other mammal known to man, that would be neat. But I wouldn't be blown away. Snakes can detect heat too. They don't do it with a third eye, but close enough. This extra-sensory organ(?) helps them get around at night and find prey. Now, if science discovered that the lemur's third eye had X-RAY vision, that would be pretty cool.
posted by Witty at 3:19 PM on December 13, 2005


Have they discovered how they dont poke each others eyes out with those things?
posted by phyle at 4:08 PM on December 13, 2005


Absolutely fabulous post!
posted by moonbird at 4:14 PM on December 13, 2005


So what? I've got a tooth that can receive radio signals.
As well as the usual Illuminati/Major League Baseball satellite mind-control rays.
posted by Joeforking at 4:36 PM on December 13, 2005


Great stuff. Thanks for posting.
posted by Sagres at 5:34 PM on December 13, 2005


Filthy!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 7:49 PM on December 13, 2005


With that many nerve endings, there has to be a significant amount of brain devoted to processing the input, just like our visual cortex. The article points out that they have small eyes, but I bet their horn-sense is primary for them. Witty's tongue is to their horn as a primitive eye-pit is to a human or bird eye, and we would have a hard time imagining the kind of world they perceive.

For another freaky animal that uses what would be its visual cortex to process information from its teeth, check out the naked mole rat. Or even weirder, check out the star-nosed mole.
posted by surlycat at 3:43 AM on December 14, 2005


It's a sensory organ... that detects temperature, salinity and so forth? and
With that many nerve endings, there has to be a significant amount of brain devoted to processing the input, just like our visual cortex.

So effectively it's a giant tooth permanently stuck out in the ice cold water.

Can you just imagine the ice cream headaches this poor critter gets?
posted by Zinger at 5:42 AM on December 14, 2005


I'd like to mention that the term "corpse whale" isn't because they're spotted, but because whales STINK. And apparently - and I know this from someone who has seen Narwhals up close - these particular whales smell like dead bodies.

(And wow, this is awesome.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 7:45 AM on December 14, 2005


I think it is important to note that, what is really interesting about this is not so much that it is a sensory organ, it is rather the METHOD in which it works. As said in the last link, no other known animal is sensing a world via a very rigid membrane, like the narwhal tooth. Since the discovery of the nerves is so recent, there hasn't been a lot of opportunities to investigate what exactly they are actually capable of sensing! They talk about pressure, temperature and particle gradients, but at this point there is not certainty about what precisely they are capable of. It could be almost anything!
posted by Catfry at 9:17 AM on December 14, 2005


\ cool /
posted by safetyfork at 12:45 PM on December 14, 2005


What seems odd to me is why narwhals would need such a long sensor. I mean, skin can assess temperature and a tongue can taste salinity, so why evolve a 2-meter long tooth to measure the same things? I'm guessing that this lengthy sensor evolved to measure gradients, for whatever reason a whale would want that. Maybe if it could tell that the water was a little colder or a little saltier in that direction, the whale would know that food (let's say) was more likely to be found in that direction. Do these guys eat plankton or anything else that rides ocean currents? Maybe gradients would tell the whale which way the current is meandering hereabouts, and they can find food more efficiently that way.
posted by Quietgal at 7:43 PM on December 14, 2005


But do narwhals nuzzle their saviors (and if they did, would they impale them?)
posted by homunculus at 9:53 PM on December 14, 2005


« Older Crunks '05: The Year in Media Errors and Correctio...  |  While googling for the the USD... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments