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A Whale's Amazing Tooth


The narwhal looks as if it belongs in a fairy tale. Or maybe a myth. This unusual whale has a long, straight tooth, or tusk, that resembles the horn of a unicorn.

The narwhal's tusk may serve as a temperature or pressure sensor.

Most male and some female narwhals have such a tusk. It sticks out from the left side of the animal's upper jaw and may grow up to 8 feet long. Not counting the tusk, a narwhal's body is typically 13 to 15 feet long. Most narwhals weigh more than a ton.

You'll probably never see a narwhal in person because these animals live in the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean. And no zoo has ever managed to keep a narwhal alive for long.

Narwhal tusks have inspired legends, but scientists know very little about these creatures. And no one has ever come up with a good explanation for why narwhals have such bizarre teeth.

This illustration from an 1820 book shows two views of a male narwhal.

This illustration from an 1820 book shows two views of a male narwhal.

NOAA Photo Library

"It's been a scientific mystery for a couple hundred years," says Martin Nweeia, a dentist in Sharon, Conn., and a researcher at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. "All kinds of explanations have been proposed, but none has been widely accepted." Suggested uses for the tusk include breaking ice, spearing fish, attracting a mate, or defending against a predator.

To find out the tusk's purpose, Nweeia and his coworkers are, for the first time, doing detailed studies of fresh tusks rather than of dried tusk tissue. This work is turning up surprising information about the tooth's structure and is hinting at a most unusual use: The scientists now say that the tusk might serve as a temperature, pressure, or water-quality sensor.

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