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Researchers in Canada have released footage they say will help unravel the “mystery of the narwhal tusk.” Footage taken last summer in the Canadian Arctic shows the creatures using their horns to quickly tap and stun cod before eating them.

Watch here: New secrets of Canada's narwhal revealed

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Hailey Montgomery
Digital Reporter

Friday, May 12, 2017, 6:38 PM - For the first time, narwhals have been caught on video using their tusks to hit and stun their prey before eating them.

The video confirms just one popular theory on the use of the tusk, which is actually a large, narrow tooth. Research has suggested that appendage is a sensory organ, and that it could be used in sexual selection.

Canadian scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), World Wildlife Fund Canada (WWF), the University of Windsor, and the Vancouver Aquarium were collaborating on a pilot project with the intention of tagging and observing the animals when the footage was filmed in northern Baffin Bay in Nunavut.

The video was, apparently, serendipitous. The footage was captured by Arctic Bear Productions filmmaker Adam Ravetch, who was commissioned by the WWF to capture footage that would get people excited about conservation. 

Brandon Laforest, Senior Specialist of Arctic Species and Ecosystems at WWF Canada, says that the footage may not have been possible from a manned camera on shore, due to the creatures' naturally shy personalities. Narwhal typically swim away when they are in close proximity to humans on shore.

"What's so great about [the drone] is it's a non-invasive way of studying them, and it just observes them exhibiting natural behaviors," he said. "The narwhal were not disturbed, so we see them exhibiting this newly documented, natural behaviour."

Eric Ootoovak, Vice-Chair of the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization in Pond Inlet, says that the predominantly Inuit population in Pond Inlet offer an important, intimate knowledge of the elusive species.

"The Inuit live amongst these animals; they're like neighbours. We live with them," he said, adding the locals knew that the narwhal were using their tusks this way -- it just hadn't been caught on camera.

Ootoovak says that this discovery is an opportunity to shed light on practices that are disruptive to Arctic marine life. Laforest agrees, adding that Canada has a unique responsibility for the creatures' conservation.

"Up to 90 per cent of the global population of narwhal spends some of its year in Canadian waters," he said. "They have also been assessed as the most sensitive Arctic marine animal to the effects of climate change."

Keeping narwhal in their natural, icy environment is important, he says, as they are very specifically adapted to their habitat, along with their diet. Climate change presents challenges to this effort, as a more ice-free Arctic means increased ship traffic for both industrial and tourism purposes. Understanding how they interact with their natural environments will help to make "conservation-based decisions."

Moving forward, the WWF will fund a project that will look into where narwhal birth and rear calves.

Sources: World Wildlife Fund

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