In medieval Europe it was believed that narwhal tusks were the horns of the legendary unicorn and so they were considered to have magic powers such as curing melancholia and even neutralising poison if formed into a cup. Because they were considered to be so powerful and magical Vikings and other northern traders were able to sell them for many times their weight in gold.
During the 16th century Queen Elizabeth I received a carved and bejewelled narwhal tusk worth 10,000 British Pounds – the cost of a castle – from Sir Humphrey Gilbert who proposed the tusk was from a sea-unicorne. Finally in 1555 Olaus Magnus published a drawing of a fish-like creature with a horn on its forehead correctly identifying it as a Narwhal.
The tusks became staples of the kunstkammer or cabinet of curiosities and knowledge of their origin spread gradually during the Age of Discovery as European explorers and naturalists began to visit Arctic regions themselves in the search for trading routes, wealth and understanding.
Monodon Monoceros is derived from the Greek, meaning “one tooth one horn”, as the creature’s most distinguishing feature is the elongated left incisor which can grow to a length of 3 metres; the body of the animal is 4 to 5 metres. As it is found in the male of the species and only very rarely in the female, the most commonly accepted theory for its existence was as a secondary sexual characteristic, possibly determining social rank as narwhals have been observed rubbing tusks together although rarely aggressively.
In 1995, Martin Nweeia, a researcher at Harvard School of Dental Medicine answered one of the questions why the narwhal has an immensely long spiral tooth; he has discovered that it is unique in form and functional adaptation – there are 10,000,000 nerve connections running from the centre to the outer surface which can detect changes in water temperature, pressure and particle gradients which means that the narwhal can detect the salinity of the water and also the fish that they feed on. This is a very surprising find since the animal lives in the freezing arctic waters and one would have thought that this sensitivity would produce extreme pain! More recently in May 2017 scientists in the Canadian government Fisheries and Oceans department have published film taken by drones showing Narwhals using their tusks to stun fish prior to eating them.