Most people would never think of an Arctic whale when thinking of the unicorn, but it was the discovery of narwhal tusks that further perpetuated the legend of this mythical beast. For a time in Europe, narwhal tusks were worth several times their weight in gold, and they were even used in the coronation chair of the Danish kings.

The Danish coronation chair.

The Danish coronation chair.

While those kings may have felt powerful sitting atop a throne of what they thought were magical unicorn horns, what they didn’t know was that they were actually surrounded by whale teeth. A narwhal’s tusk is just a tooth that has grown larger than the others, piercing through its upper lip.

We now know that these tusks don’t offer us any special powers, but they could be giving narwhals some advantages. Scientists aren’t certain how they are used, but some think that it could have evolved as a sexually-selected ornament for males, like a male peacock’s colourful feathers, or as a sensory organ; if you’ve ever bit into a popsicle, you know how sensitive teeth are. Clint Wright, senior vice president and general manager at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre is currently involved in ongoing research in the Arctic to understand how narwhals use their tusks and where they travel throughout the seasons. Keeping track of their population size and understanding migration patterns are important in making sure their populations stay healthy.

We’re no longer pondering the mysteries of the unicorn but we still have much to learn about this marine mammal. Find out what scientists have learned so far about narwhals and other legendary marine animals by visiting Sea Monsters Revealed: The Exhibition, on now until September 7, 2015 at the Vancouver Aquarium.

A narwhal (Monodon monoceros) skull. It is uncommon for them to have double tusks, but it does happen.

A narwhal (Monodon monoceros) skull. It is uncommon for them to have double tusks, but it does happen.

Written by Karen Glanzberg, writer-editor, content and digital experience at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre.

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