by the Center for Biological Diversity
The so-called unicorn horns once prized by Renaissance collectors and thought to have magical powers likely belonged not to mythical white horses but to the chunky, odd-looking whales we know as narwhals, which are now among the marine animals threatened by climate change in the far North. Narwhals are hunted by Inuit, polar bears and orca, and mostly live in Canada and western Greenland.
Narwhals’ long, single tusk, it turns out, is in fact an 8-foot-long spiral tooth whose evolutionary mysteries have baffled scientists for decades. Now Martin Nweeia of the Harvard School of Dental Medicine has discovered that narwhals’ extraordinary-looking megatooth actually contains 10 million hypersensitive nerve connections, which can suss out changes in water temperature, water pressure and “particle gradients,” helping the animals navigate and hunt. In other words, these “unicorn horns” do have magical properties after all.
illustration at top adapted from original work by machoroboraza / flickr creative commons