NarwhalKnown as the “unicorn of the sea,” the narwhal is different from its mythic cousin in one important respect: It’s real. 

This relative of the beluga whale and orca lives year-round in the Arctic, feeding on cod, squid, and various types of mollusks. Reaching up to 16 feet in length and weighing almost 2 tons, the male of the species is distinguished by its
left front tooth, an 8-foot-long tusk spiraling counterclockwise out of its upper jaw.

The function of this tusk has never been clear. Is it used in mating rituals? In jousting for dominance? Might it be used in finding food, or in intensifying sonar signals?

While all of these are possibilities, scientists have recently discovered that the narwhal’s tusk is far more complex than it seems. Calling it “a sensory organ of exceptional size and sensitivity,” a 2005 report in the New York Times noted that the tusk is riddled with hollow tubules through which “10 million nerve endings tunnel...toward its outer surface, communicating with the outside world.” 

According to this article, “The scientists say the nerves can detect subtle changes of temperature, pressure, particle gradients and probably much else, giving the animal unique insights”—insights such as the awareness that ice is forming overhead, meaning that the time for migrating to deeper water has come.

When that time arrives, narwhal pods can grow from 20 or 30 individuals up to nearly 2,000. “The whales mate in cracks of ice in the dead of winter, in pitch darkness, when the wind chill can drive the air temperature to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit,” Abigail Tucker reported in the May 2009 issue of Smithsonian. She further noted that thanks to compressible rib cages, the creature is capable of diving up to a mile in search of food. In the wild the narwhal lives from 50 to 100 years. In captivity, it quickly dies.

Unbelievable but real, elusive but more memorable than anything we can imagine, the Creator of the Universe rises and dives through our lives, thoroughly unpredictable, wild.