Monday, August 6, 2007
The Unicorn of the Sea
The other day I came across an interesting (and extremely gruesome--so beware) photo essay on National Geographic's website. The subject was the narwhal, an exotic-looking beast that's always intrigued me. These small (15 foot-long) Arctic-dwelling whales look much like their friendly cousins, the belugas, except for the bizarre, ten-foot-long, spiraled horn that sprouts from their heads.
So in the service of this blog, I decided to do a little research. As it turns out, the narwhal is even more interesting than I ever expected. In fact, they're probably the true origin of the unicorn legend.
The name narwhal comes from the Norse language and means "corpse whale." (The whales are said to resemble the bloated bodies of sailors who die at sea.) Until the narwhal became known to science in the 17th century, Viking hucksters often sold the whale's ivory tusks as unicorn horns. Far more precious than gold, unicorn horns were prized by royalty around the world for their magical properties, including the ability to protect their owners from poisons. Queen Elizabeth I possessed one such horn, which was said to be worth more than the price of a castle. Other royals had narwhal tusks made into jewel-laden scepters or used them to pay off enormous national debts.
As late as 1870, narwhals were still the subjects of tall tales. Some even claimed their tusks could pierce ships' hulls and send large boats to the bottom of the sea. Only recently has the truth become known. The narwhal's tusk is in fact an overgrown, unusually sensitive tooth. (A few narwhals, like the one shown above, even have two.) We don't known exactly how the tusks are used, but it's been suggested that they help the animals connect with the outside world--determining temperature and possibly even predicting the weather.
Sadly, as National Geographic points out, there aren't many narwhals left to study. Hopefully they can be better protected in the future. It would be a terrible shame to lose such a strange and wonderful creature.