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Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Amazing Narwhal

The Narwhal is truly an extraordinary mammal, most renowned for his Unicorn-like tusk.

Narwhal tusks, up to nine feet long, were sold as unicorn horns in ages past, often for many times their weight in gold since they were said to possess magic powers. In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth received a tusk valued at £10,000 - the cost of a castle. Austrian lore holds that Kaiser Karl the Fifth paid off a large national debt with two tusks. In Vienna, the Hapsburgs had one made into a scepter heavy with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds.

What's even more amazing is that a team of scientists from Harvard and the National Institute of Standards and Technology found that the Narwhal's tusk is actually a sensory organ of exceptional size and sensitivity. The eight-foot-long modified tooth has as many as 10 million tiny nerves reaching from its surface to the central core and, ultimately, the whale's brain.

Nature has actually recreated this little trick many times before, with the duck-billed Platypus, a venomous, egg-laying, duck-billed mammal that has electroreceptors and mechanoreceptors distributed across its bill to help him locate his prey, and with the Star-nosed mole that has a bizarre set of 22 fleshy mobile tentacles on its nose that are extremely sensitive to touch and electrical impulses, allowing it to find its prey without sight.



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