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Impact Magazine

The Unicorn of the Arctic

Life Sciences Museum

Photo by Emily Tribe

Bye, Buddy! Hope you find your dad!” This iconic scene in John Favreau’s beloved Christmas film Elf (2003) lasts only a few seconds, but the adorable image of cartoon Mr. Narwhal popping tusk-first out of the water is one that is hard to forget.

Despite popular belief, the narwhal is not a fictitious creature and can be found living in pods in the Atlantic sector of the Arctic Ocean. With much to learn about the “unicorn of the sea,” the BYU Life Science Monte L. Bean Museum was enthusiastic to house the official traveling Smithsonian exhibit showcasing these fascinating (and real!) creatures.

The National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian narwhal exhibit’s original home, shows a video explaining the Inuit tribes’ cultural legends and tales of the narwhal. Inuit tribes call the narwhal Qilalugag — “the one that points to the sky.” According to old Inuit legends, a woman transformed into the creature after she was tied to a white whale and drowned in the ocean. All that remained of her was a long braid of hair that evolved into a twisted tusk.

The Smithsonian exhibit features Dr. Martin Nweeia and his team’s research on the mammal. The iconic tusk, found on most males, is actually a porous, overgrown tooth, believed to be a mating advantage for the species. Some narwhals even have two of these “teeth.” Despite this, narwhals do not actually hunt with their tusks; rather, they opt to suck up fish and shrimp through their vacuum-like mouths.

Narwhals prefer the icy waters of the North, frequenting the Arctic Ocean bordering Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia. Unlike other whale species, narwhals do not migrate. They spend the winter months hidden beneath ice floes in the Arctic. During the summer season, they roam the ice-free waters closer to shores as they hunt for food.

“This has become my new favorite exhibit,” says Sarah Palmer, Life Science Museum employee and BYU anthropology student. “Especially because it links the narwhal to everyday human experiences.” She explains that understanding the narwhal’s significance in the lives of the Inuit, who used the sea creature for food and ivory, is integral to understanding its importance to the ocean’s ecosystem.

The animal is culturally relevant not only for the Inuits but for people around the world. Palmer’s favorite piece in the exhibit is the colorful unicorn tapestry. In the Middle Ages, Scandinavian traders would sell “unicorn horns” (narwhal tusks) for medicinal purposes. The animal is culturally relevant for people around the world.

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Fun Fact:
Narwhal tusks are extremely flexible and can bend up to one foot in any direction.
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According to Travis Schenck, Life Science Museum exhibit designer, the narwhal exhibit demonstrates our connection and responsibility to the planet. Facets of the exhibit explore how global surface warming is threatening narwhal ecosystems in the Arctic.

“Our changing climate is changing their habitat, not only impacting the whale but the people who are involved,” Schenck said. “This includes the Inuit stories—a people who have known the whale for much longer than us.”

According to Schenck, the exhibit presents narwhals as a mystery. “We don’t know a lot about them, but we can learn a lot from them,” he says. “We still have things to discover.”

Narwhals are among the many mysteries of our vast, wild planet Earth. Thanks to science and research, we can explore and learn about mysteries like this unicorn of the Arctic.