Narwhals Are Craftier Than We Gave Them Credit For

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Photo: Doc White/Getty Images/Nature Picture Library

Sure, okay, so maybe we have no idea what the next four years are going to bring. But we can take comfort in the fact that other species seem to be doing better — at least the narwhals know where they’re going. In a study recently published in the journal PLOS ONE, scientists discovered that the “unicorns of the sea” are pretty darn good at echolocation, using sound to make sense of the water around them. From Science News:

A team of researchers set up 16 underwater microphones to eavesdrop on narwhal click vocalizations at 11 ice-pack sites in Greenland’s Baffin Bay in 2013. The recordings show that narwhal clicks are extremely intense and directional — meaning they can widen and narrow the beam of sound to find prey over long and short distances. It’s the most directional sonar signal measured in a living species.

The sound beams are also asymmetrically narrow on top. That minimizes clutter from echoes bouncing off the sea surface or ice pack. Finally, narwhals scan vertically as they dive, which could help them find patches of open water where they can surface and breathe amid sea-ice cover.

As the New York Times reported, narwhals need to come up for air every four to six minutes, but in the dark, icy Arctic areas they call home, light — and open water — can be hard to come by.

“You don’t see open water for miles and miles and suddenly there’s a small crack, and you’ll see narwhals in it,” lead study author Kristin Lairdre, an ecologist at the University of Washington, told the Times. “I’ve always wondered how do these animals navigate under that, and how do they find small openings to breathe?” Now we know: in the absence of light, they rely other means to get where they need to be. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, maybe.