Demystifying the Narwhal’s Tusk

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Photo Credit: National Geographic

Yet again drones have proved an invaluable instrument for new discoveries, especially when it comes to observing marine mammal behavior (see my past post: Whale Tales – Current Cetacean Communiqués).  The subject in question this time is the strange and elusive Narwhal.

Humans have valued Narwhal tusks for centuries, perceiving them as a cure for a number of medical ailments including epilepsy and poisoning, a practice which is still alive and well in Japan. Inuits still carry on the tradition of culling narwhal for subsistence and often used the tusks for carving. However, we have had little knowledge about the value of the tusk to the animal itself until recent years. More current research and observation suggests the tusks of narwhals function in multiple capacities.

The edited footage above conveniently highlights moments where individual narwhals stun passing cod with a solid tap of their tusk. It’s an interesting hunting method, but one that is rivaled by other examples in the marine world. Many species immobilize their prey; some, like sailfish, use similar techniques, while others may use contrasting tools. Electric Rays and eels shock their quarry, while pistol shrimp use high-speed cavitation bubbles to daze their targets. Archer fish knock their dinner out of overlying branches by spitting a stream of water at them.

The purpose of the narwhal’s tusk likely doesn’t stop at clubbing unwitting prey. The absence of an enamel coating on their tusk supports the idea that these animals might be using them in a sensory capacity, allowing the specialized tooth to come into contact with surrounding water masses to detect environmental changes such as salinity and temperature, as well as chemical cues in the water associated with food and mates. Pairing this awareness of their surroundings with highly directional echolocation also allows them to find sometime slim openings in Arctic ice coverage where they can surface and breath as needed.

However, these animals may still suffer catastrophic events living in the extremes they do. Pods of narwhals occasionally suffer entrapments when rapidly shifting weather conditions cause unexpected freezing over potential air holes leading to open water. Kristin Laidre, a researcher at University of Washington’s Polar Science Center, noticed the frequency and timing of those events may be changing with recent shifts in Arctic climate. This, paired with a variety of additional stressors to the whales’ habitat, is the focus of one her current research projects examining the behavioral ecology of narwhals in a changing Arctic. She and other researchers have tagged the animals on multiple occasions in Canada’s Baffin Bay to track their movement, the depth of their dives, and associated water temperatures. As it turns out the temperature data has proved useful to other scientists interested in climatology data. Laidre is soon hoping to once again utilize the oceanographic power of narwhals, this time in Greenland.

Faltering Ice – The Crack in Larsen C

There is currently a great deal of collective breath-holding surrounding the fate of a portion of the Larsen C ice shelf. Reports since December have been narrating the changes in a widening crack along its face, as the rift has increased in length by 20 miles. Only a 12 mile stretch of intact ice keeps the shelf tenuously anchored. As USA Today notes, you can literally bet on when it will give way.

The Larsen ice shelf is a region of chaos along the Antarctic Peninsula which curves towards the toe of Chile. The region is named after whaling captain and explorer Carl Anton Larsen, who experienced an Antarctic winter stranding with his men, not unlike that of Ernest Shackleton. Much of the shelf has already been lost previously due to catastrophic collapse events. 1995 saw the crumbling of Larsen A. Seven years later, Larsen B disintegrated over the course of 2-3 months. Its epic demise was cataloged by watching satellites.

The sheering off of these massive stretches of ice are not without effect. Ice shelves are comparable to sea ice, and their liberation does not directly contribute to changes in sea level. However, they often fortify nearby glaciers, and once absent, glacial movement can speed up significantly. Glacial ice, in contrast, can contribute to changing sea levels. It is thought that global warming trends have contributed to many ice sheet de-stabilization events around Greenland and Antarctica. Because ice is a cooling influence on climate due to its reflective nature (called albedo), ice loss is part of a positive feedback loop. Warming trends reduce both ice cover and albedo which leads to further warming.

This NASA photo released December 1, 2016 shows what scientists on NASA's IceBridge mission photographed in a view of a massive
View of the Larsen C ice shelf fissure in Nov 2015 as documented by the NASA Icebridge Mission.

On perhaps a lighter note however, the calving of ice also has also led to unexpected discoveries. After the break up of Larsen B, scientists discovered an intricate chemotrophic ecosystem a half mile below the ocean’s surface.  Chemotrophic organisms create their own energy through chemical pathways rather than relying on photosynthesis. The system below Larsen B was populated by cold seep clams and mats of microbes, examples of tenacious organisms that have adapted to get by with little access to sunlight or the growth of the phytoplankton food source it supports. This along with findings like vast microbial communities found within subglacial lakes in Antarctica adds to our collective evidence that life finds ways to subsist in the most extreme of environments.

Imagine the Future and Work Backwards

Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. – J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World

Earlier this year, (I am late in finally moving this post from draft to final form), University of Florida held a fascinating plenary session called “Imagining Climate Change: Science and Fiction in Dialogue” as part of their February 2016 Water Institute Symposium. I was lucky enough to attend this along with several other events meant to foster dialogue about water and water resources.Many of these events embraced the intersection between art and science, with an understanding that the former may have a lot to add to the communication of the latter.

The plenary focused on a panel consisting of scientists and science fiction writers, several who dabbled in the blurred lines between those professions. Terry Harpold, Associate Professor of English at UF, moderated the discussion. Scientists included Ellen E. Martin, a paleoclimatology fellow for the Florida Climate Institute and professor of paleoceanography at UF, and Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an earth system sciences professor at UC Irvine. Rounding out the authors were Yann Quero, Jeff VanderMeer, and Tobias Buckell.

The session reminded me of variations of scenario-based planning exercises we practiced in our conflict management course. The participants can embark on a sort of imaginative course of suggesting possible futures or outcomes. As Kahane (2012) describes the method: “The scenario method asks people to talk not about what they predict will happen or what they believe should happen, but only about what they think could happen.” Different versions of the process have wavered on the importance of plausibility versus probability. But regardless, it lets those involved imagine the future and possibly envision solutions to keep negative possibilities from occurring, or identify steps to support positive scenarios.

Harpold directed the panel first to consider water and its influence on them – “the great solvent of our collective imagination” – and the members described often poignant moments where resource coincided with personal memory. One panel participant, Tobias Buckell, described his youth growing up in the Caribbean and living on boats, a unique perspective that colored his responses to later questions. Dr. Famiglietti was also able to re-iterate a point he has made in the documentary Last Call at the Oasis, concerning his findings of extreme water scarcity in the western coast of the US among other regions, and how his interests have continually moved towards how to relay this topic effectively to the public and outside of the constraints of technical writing.

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Source: http://franceflorida.clas.ufl.edu

The conversation turned to examining the role of writers in contrast to those of scientists, as it was noted that sometimes science writing is not enough, the effectiveness of the translation piece is becoming the defining thing. When asked why writers feel compelled to bring in the science, the French author Yann Quero noted that it used to be the job of the writer to make people dream. It appears however, for some writers, that the looming threat of climate change has made some of them feel a personal onus to translate the sometimes labored language of the science into humanized narratives, crafting stories with probable elements. “Let me grab you by the face and show you how tragic this will be on a human scale” added Tobias Buckell.

It was also suggested that this kind of science-driven fiction can make the lives of scientists more relatable by conveying their lives and the constraints they work under. Ideally, this would make the efforts of researchers like Dr. Famglietti and Dr. Martin easier. But it is also clear that scientists are operating under a different set of constraints with regards to communicating the science of climate change, as became very evident when the topic of uncertainty was posed to the panel.

Dr. Martin referred to the perception of there being gatekeepers of scientists and publishing, certain thresholds that needed to be met before scientists were let loose to communicate. Further discussion established that fiction had the luxury of being able to exist within a different convention of reliability. However, when the question was posed about how much uncertainty needed to be minimized before action was taken,  Dr. Famiglietti recounted (I saw him in multiple contexts, so this comment may have been made at an earlier event) attending a meeting where Al Gore was speaking and proceeded to lay out a directive for the scientific community to embrace the responsibility of sharing their science, as no one else knew their data with the same intimacy, or perhaps understood with the same gravity, the messages their research was revealing. If there was a preponderance of supportive data, more harm than good could be done waiting to to reach a 98% confidence threshold.

Additionally, scientific jargon and word usage can be misconstrued. The public may hear the word “error” and understand it to mean “wrong”, when in a scientific context, it may in fact refer to the process of getting closer and closer to the correct answer.  So there is the challenge of choosing how to effectively relay the larger messages. Alternatively, authors were asked how or if they maintain scientific rigor within their text, while still subscribing to the creative process of writing fiction. One of the more interesting responses came from weird fiction (an actual subgenre of speculative fiction, not my classification) author Jeff Vandermeer who suggested fiction doesn’t need to solve the questions  it poses, as we often can’t in real life. He also referenced the writer J.G. Ballard, author of “The Drowned World”, who engages his reader in thought experiments. How is the human mind altered by climate change? Perhaps you don’t need to even characterize the change correctly, the power is more in the act of considering it.

The panel ended by gauging the level of hope panel participants had for the future, as  moderator Harpold suggested “hope is a deeply irreducible human thing…” The tone of responses was one of adaptation rather than complete mitigation. There are no absolute solutions, but we would be remiss to do nothing. Dr. Famiglietti recognized the irreversible trend associated with some aspects of climate change but voiced his hope in future communities to develop sustainable ways to manage resources. Vandermeer suggested we not engage in magical thinking and shy away from the complexities of climate change, but may need to instead redefine our vision of utopia. Also acceptance that our current way of life is dead leaves us room to engage in new ways of living, that we we need to become less to become more. From his own experiences, Buckell has been led to believe we are far more likely to come together to rebuild and recover, in contrast to the “rugged individualism” Hollywood has led us to believe characterizes natural disaster.

All in all, the session an intriguing look into the minds of a group of men and women who have devoted a significant part of their lives to considering the implications of climate change. It is certainly a heavy task to engage it, but one they are clearly doing so with thoughtfulness and conviction.