Science Update: Sensory Functions of a Narwhal’s Tusk

Many of us who are involved in outdoors activities are interested in new discoveries in wildlife science. A good deal of the popular knowledge about wildlife that we use in our hunting and fishing activities comes from scientific research, and indeed we rely on this knowledge to better understand the animals we pursue and to develop effective hunting strategies. Most scientific research is first published in academic journals. There are thousands of journals and subscriptions to them are expensive. This means that first hand research knowledge is largely unaccessible to the vast majority of the public. I’m lucky that I have access to databases full of journal articles through my work. I want to use this series to discuss new and interesting pieces of wildlife research that are of particular interest to the hunting-conservation community.

As a hunter and outdoorsman, I’m fascinated by wildlife and ecology. Not surprisingly, I have a particular interest in understanding everything I can get my hands on about North American wildlife, especially those species that are also important table-fare in various communities. This first post is not a brand new piece of research anymore, and it may be somewhat removed from the regions and species many of us hunt, but I chose this story because it’s a species that is relevant to the areas I work in the Canadian Arctic. Some people may not even be aware of this species’ existence, but it sure is an interesting animal.

Narwhals (Monodon monoceros) are a toothed whale species (odontoceti) roughly 11 million years old. They are a resident Arctic species, meaning that they spend the entire year in Arctic waters, including during winter ice-covered periods when they rely on openings in the ice to come up for air. Their Canadian range is throughout the central and eastern Arctic waters where they move between summer and winter grounds. Narwhals spend more of their time in deep offshore waters, but also move into more shallow fjords during summers. They eat fish, squid, and shrimp, and do much of their feeding under the ice throughout the winter. Narwhals are hunted by Inuit communities as an important food source. Both of the communities I do research in, Kugaaruk and Pangnirtung, Nunavut, have active summer narwhal hunts. I’ve heard from many people that the narwhal hunt is one of their favourite times of year. : Bryan and Cherry Alexander : WWF

Copyright: / Bryan and Cherry Alexander / WWF

The most recognizable and magnificent feature of narwhals is the long tusk that protrudes directly from the front of the mouth. The tusk is actually an erupted, protruding left canine tooth that spirals forward, growing as long as 2.6 m / 9 ft, with typically only males growing tusks (as an interesting side note, walrus tusks are also protruded upper canines, whereas elephant tusks are actually elongated incisors). It’s not surprising that this species has been the subject of lore and cultural stories throughout human history.

Since narwhals have been studied by hunters, explorers, and scientists, there has been a great deal of uncertainty over the specific function of the tusk. As may be expected, there is evidence that males use their tusks to attract mates through displays of dominance and to fight other males. In 2014, some of the mystery surrounding narwhal tusks was answered. A study examining the sensory functions of the narwhal tusk discovered that the tusk provides a type of direct line of communication between a narwhal’s brain and temperature and chemical changes in the ocean. Like many mammalian teeth, working inwards from the surface, the outer layer of a narwhal’s tusk is covered with a porous cementum, followed by a dentin layer containing tubes that channel in towards the centre of the tusk. In the core of the tooth, running the full length of the tusk, is a pulp layer full of nerve endings that connect to the brain. In other mammalian teeth, the portion of the tooth that is exposed above the gum line is covered with a hard enamel layer. What sets the narwhal’s tusk apart from other mammalian teeth is that the porous cementum layer is exposed, allowing it to detect changes in the surrounding ocean.

These findings indicate that tusks may fulfill a sensory function to help narwhal locate food sources and mates. Diet analyses show that males and females have different food sources for much of the year, overlapping particularly during the spring-summer mating period. The study also suggests that there may be a number of hypotheses for how tusks could be used to find and attract mates. For example, the tusk may be used to detect females in estrous; to detect food sources that are likely to attract feeding females (which is also supported by the fact that diets overlap during the mating period); or as an indication to females that a male with a well developed tusk could be more successful at finding food for calves.

It’s interesting to learn more about the evolutionary purposes of what is already a stunning physical trait in an elusive species like the narwhal. It’s sometimes easy to forget that we are still discovering the natural world every day. We have a great deal of knowledge about wildlife, but there are also many species we have yet to discover, and it’s a guarantee that we still have much to learn about the species we do know. Each of these little pieces we uncover should remind us to remain both humble and in awe at the diversity of species on this planet. More so, it should remind us of the importance in conserving each of these species and maintaining this diversity.

Framing Hunting Messaging: Not Pandering, Being a Good Ambassador

I suppose like many people, when I encounter a new idea, I often come to a better understanding of the information by referencing it to things that are familiar to my own life. Sometimes this happens more unconsciously as simply a way to make sense of what I’m taking in; other times, I come across something that clearly has direct applications to my own priorities and interests. I recently came across a study that has the potential to help us more meaningfully engage with the public and change the way people respond to hunting.

As a preface to this post, I should comment on two things. First, I believe that language is a powerful tool that can be used to either productively advance our priorities or completely squander opportunities to create understanding. The development of language in the history of human evolution was quite the turning point for our species. Our languages embody and express our worldviews – our understandings of the world that give meaning to our experiences and the phenomena we encounter. Language is not just an objective and technical representation of the world; rather, different cultures understand the world differently, and language is inextricably bound with this understanding. The role of language in framing our ideas and therefore its importance in genuine communication cannot be understated.

A second prefacing point has to do with something that, while perhaps an understandable symptom of highly emotional issues like hunting, is becoming increasingly frustrating to me. It’s a defensive sentiment that produces one outcome: it stalls conversations and prevents mutual understanding. Too often, the conscientious among us who suggest we should carefully frame our discussions with non-hunters are accused of “pandering” or being “politically correct”. These narrow-minded accusations seem to imply that wanting to represent hunting in a way that reflects the respect we have for it somehow makes us weak, sensitive, or overly “liberal”. This is ridiculous. I challenge anyone to find me a time when any interest group (hunters, anti-hunters, etc.) has taken an uncompromising stance in a conversation and come out of that encounter having advanced their interests in any way. This response teems with arrogance and ignorance, and it’s not helpful.

I recently had the opportunity to have one of my pieces about our choice of language published as part of an essay series on the Meat Eater website. I had some very positive responses from people about that piece, and I also heard some of the responses I just mentioned above. In any case, it got me thinking more about this idea, and I came across a paper that I think compliments this broader discussion.

In a recent paper titled “Red, white, and blue enough to be green: Effects of moral framing on climate change attitudes and conservation behaviors” published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers from Oregon State University examined the way different audiences respond to information about climate change. The study found that the “moral framing” of climate change information changed how people of different political ideologies responded to the messaging. In particular, conservatives (typically a group resistant to climate change messaging) responded more favourably when the messages were bound in moral frames and suggested that protecting the environment “was a matter of obeying authority, defending nature and demonstrating patriotism” rather than it being about environmental justice or equality.

In addition, both conservatives and liberals were more likely to respond favourably when they perceived that the messages had come from people with similar political ideologies to themselves – they were more likely to believe people when they already had something in common with them. The study also found that it isn’t only attitudes that change depending on the framing of the messaging. Individuals were more likely to change their behaviour when they perceived that the messages both reflected their values and came from people who shared those values.

So our ideologies play an important role in influencing our acceptance or rejection of information, including matters that are largely seen as scientific fact (and yes, 99% of the scientific community agrees that climate change is real and is happening, so let’s get that out of the way). This suggests that it is not simply a battery of hard facts that will convince others of our viewpoints or opinions. We need to take a much more carefully constructed and strategic approach in our interactions.

My immediate thought was that this study has fascination implications for how we approach hunting advocacy, whether it be in one-on-one conversations or at larger political levels. The study’s findings tell me that it does matter how we frame our arguments and opinions. The findings also tell me that shifting our approach to match our audience is not pandering, it’s making a choice to be positive and effective ambassadors of hunting.

For us as hunters, this means that we can’t only preach to the choir. We need to be speaking with non-hunters too. The non-hunting voting majority has the ability to influence laws that affect hunting and conservation, and it is non-hunters who are going to be best situated to influence other non-hunters. In other words, we need allies to make allies. We need to engage with a variety of perspectives and priorities related to conservation, so that we can actively cultivate hunting supporters. To do this, we should focus on aspects of hunting that are most likely to be well received by our audiences, those aspects that will have a point of reference in their own lives. I think that the moral and ethical foundations of hunting, and the successful history of harvest-based conservation policies in North America, provide us with a wide enough variety of strong points for these discussions that it should be easy enough for us to shift our approach as appropriate.

One way to start putting these ideas into action is to be attentive to the motivations of our audiences. If someone expresses that they are motivated by the desire to maintain healthy wildlife populations, we can explain how hunting does this through effective population management. If someone tells you that they are motivated by concerns for animal welfare, we have an opportunity to explain that hunting organizations have been critical in habitat protection and that hunting can help reduce human-wildlife conflicts. If someone else is motivated by personal nutrition, we can cite the multitudes of nutritional benefits in eating wild game. There are many ways that we can appropriately respond to a wide range of audiences and we owe it to ourselves to think through all of these aspects of the discussion and be constructive in our approach.

The research and understanding is there folks, it’s now up to us to choose to use our knowledge to capitalize on opportunities to be good ambassadors of hunting. Let’s remember how positive hunting is in our own lives and how pivotal it has been in the history of conservation, and ensure that we are representing ourselves in equally positive ways.