The narwhal: a serious case of nerves

"Narwhal or unicorn"

Timeline, 2006: The narwhal has a history as striking as the animal itself. Vikings kept the narwhal a secret for centuries even as they peddled its “horn” as that of a unicorn. Narwhal tusks were so prized that monarchs paid the equivalent of the cost of a castle just to have one. They were thought to have magic powers, render poison ineffective, cure all manner of diseases, and foil assassins.

A tooth and nothing but a tooth

As it turns out, the horn is really just a tooth, an extremely long, odd, tooth. The narwhal tusk, which usually grows only on males from their left upper jaw, can reach lengths of six feet or more. Sometimes, males will grow two tusks, one on each side. The tooth turns like a corkscrew as it grows, stick straight, from the narwhal’s head. They are such an odd sight that scientists have been trying to figure out for centuries exactly what that tusk might be doing there.

Some have posited that the narwhal uses the tusks in epic battles with other male narwhals. Others have fancifully suggested that the animal might use the long tooth to break through the ice, ram the sides of ships (nevermind the disconnect between when the tusk arose and when ships entered the scene), or to skewer prey—although no one seems to have addressed how the narwhal would then get the prey to its mouth.

Gentle tusk rubbing

The facts are that the narwhal rarely, if ever, appears to duel with other narwhals. Its primary use of the tusk appears to be for tusking other males, in which the animals gently rub tusks with one another. They also may be used in mating or other activities, although that has not yet been demonstrated. But what has been discovered is that the narwhal ought to be suffering from a severe case of permanent toothache.

Arctic cold strikes a narwhal nerve

Anyone who has ever had exposed nerves around their teeth knows that when cold hits those nerves, the pain usually sends us running for the dentist. Now imagine that your tooth is six feet long, has millions of completely exposed nerve endings, and is constantly plunged in the icy waters of the Arctic. You’ve just imagined being a narwhal.

Dentist on ice

A clinical instructor at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine who thinks of nothing but teeth made this discovery about the narwhal. The instructor, Martin Nweeia, can wax rhapsodic about teeth and how central they are to our health and the stories they can tell even about how we lived and died. He has carried his tooth obsession beyond his own species, however; his passion led him to spend days on Arctic ice floes, watching for the elusive narwhal, or at least one of the tusks, to emerge from the deadly cold water. He also befriended the local Inuit, who rely on the narwhal as a source of food and fuel oil.

His fascination and rapport with the Inuit people ended with his viewing several specimens of narwhal tusks. What he and his colleagues discovered astonished them. The tusks appeared to consist of open tubules that led straight to what appear to be millions of exposed nerve endings. In humans, nerve tubules are never open in healthy teeth. But in the narwhal tusk, which is an incredible example of sexual dimorphism and the only spiral tooth known in nature today, these open tubules were the norm.

Sensory tooth

The researchers speculated that the animals may use this enormous number of naked nerves as a finely sensitive sensory organ. In addition, it is possible that the teeth transmit voltage through a process called the piezo effect, in which crystals generate voltage when a mechanical force rattles them. In the case of the narwhal, who swim quickly through the water, water pressure might provide the force. Because narwhals are among the most vocal of whales, the tusks could also be sound sensors.

Why would dentists be so interested in the tusks of a whale? Examinations of the narwhal tusks have revealed that they are incredibly flexible, unlike our teeth, which are strong but also rigid and comparatively brittle. It is possible that understanding the narwhal tusk might have clinical applications for developing flexible dental materials for restoring pearly whites in people.

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