WATCH: Never before seen footage shows narwhals using their tusks to hunt
The question of what, exactly, narwhals use their tusks for has long puzzled scientists, generating plenty of theories but not a lot of hard facts.
Now, new footage released by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the World Wildlife Fund proves that the whales– sometimes called ‘unicorns of the sea’ – do, indeed, use them to hunt.
The video was captured by documentary filmmaker Adam Ravetch using drones based out of a DFO arctic research camp, and shows the narwhals feeding on a school of cod.
However, the way they use the tusks might not be quite what you’re imagining.
“As the cod was positioned close to the tip of the tusk, the narwhal then sort of gave it a quick hard tap that likely stunned the fish, it looked like it was momentarily not moving, and then the narwhal would move in with its mouth and suck in the prey,” says DFO biologist Steve Ferguson in a video uploaded Friday.
Scientists were able to capture that never before seen behavior because the drones could get close enough to the notoriously shy whales without spooking them.
The feeding behavior is not likely the primary purpose of the tusks, which few female narwhals have and which are actually teeth which can grow up to three meters in length.
Biologists have in recent years uncovered evidence indicating that the tusks’ primary purpose may actually be as sensory organs.
However, other researchers believe they could also be used as weapons, ice picks, or for echolocation.
The footage shows they appear to be versatile tools.
“They seem very agile with their tusks, when you see the video they can flip the fish in a very agile way,” DFO scientist Marianne Marcoux says in the video.
“So what is very exciting to me is what else can they do with their tusks?”
Virtually the world’s entire population of narwhals lives north of 61 degrees in arctic waters shared by Canada, Greenland, and Northern Europe.
The animals are threatened, and have been identified as a “special concern” by the Committee on Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. They’re also being looked at for listing under the federal Species at Risk Act.