Narwhals and Sound Pollution
Narwhals are fascinating creatures that have inspired magic, music, and interest in the sea! Known for their “horns,” which are really tusks, they look a bit like a unicorn of the sea. These tusks are found on males (mostly) and are a modified tooth reaching 10 feet in length! There is much magic in these unique marine creatures. Let’s dive in to learn more about narwhals and the plights they face in the arctic today.
Unicorns of the Sea
Narwhals are considered whales! In fact, their closest living relative is the beluga whale. They range in size from 12-20 feet and can weigh as much as 4,000 pounds. They live in the Arctic waters of Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia (World Wildlife Fund).
Narwhals can live about 40-50 years. Throughout their life, they “change” colors. When they are first born, they are a blue-grey color. When they become juveniles, their color darkens and they appear more blue-black in color. By the time they are full-grown, adults, they are more “blotchy” and mostly gray in color. In their later, older years they become lighter and more white in color.
Their tusks are suspected to be used as a sensory tooth. They have around 10 million nerve endings in their tusks! Usually, males have tusks, but some have two, and some have zero. There is some debate in the scientific community about the narwhal’s tusk. It is believed to serve as an aid in defense and competition, simply an accessory element, or a way for males to appear more attractive for mate selection.
When hunting, narwhals will travel in pods of 15-30 individuals and consume fish such as halibut, cod, shrimp, and squid. Their predators are orca whales, polar bears, and walruses.
What’s That Sound?
Narwhals face a myriad of threats in the wild. Among the most dangerous are collisions, noise pollution, and climate change. Unfortunately, the more human activity increases, the more oil, and gas are used and the more shipping vessels occupy the habitats of marine life. With increased numbers of shipping vessels, there is a greater risk for injury and fatal collisions of narwhals and ships.
Additionally, narwhals use echolocation to communicate, hunt for food, and travel in pods. A lot of their hunting and movement is done in darkness as the arctic waters become dark and dim of light. Echolocation is used just as bats use it to locate their food and navigate through the darkness. A recent article written by Maria Hornbek-Copenhagen discusses the negative effects of anthropogenic noise on narwhal behavior. Researchers at the University of Copenhagen found that narwhals changed their behavior, hunted less, and stopped emitting echolocation-related sounds with increased anthropogenic noise.
Alejandra O’Connell-Domenech from Changing America writes, “The narwhals’ reactions indicate that they are frightened and stressed. They stop emitting the click sounds that they need to feed, they stop diving deep and they swim close to shore, a behavior that they usually only display when feeling threatened by killer whales. This behavior means that they have no chance of finding food for as long as the noise persists," said marine biologist Outi Tervo from the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, one of the researchers behind the study.” (Changing America).
How Can We Help?
As always, reducing our carbon footprint will help this species of whale. Additionally, spreading awareness and supporting non-profit organizations that support narwhal conservation will be beneficial. Read more about the study’s findings in our sources section.
Written By: Bailey Higa