If you didn’t know the narwhal was real, you might think it was a creature of legend, a mythical unicorn of the sea. These whimsical marine mammals, which are medium-sized whales, are noted for the single, spiraling tusk borne by the male of the species. The tusk, which appears like a pointed spear, can be as long as 9 feet – more than half the narwhal’s body length.

Narwhals-300x190With Natural Habitat Expeditions, you can kayak in the Land of the Narwhal on our Baffin Island paddling trip in the Canadian Arctic, listening for their hollow blows and watching for the telltale “spear” rising above the steely water, fed by the great ice fields of the far North.

But it turns out that narwhals are interesting for another reason besides their unusually long incisor tooth, which is technically what this fearsome-looking tusk is. These animals are playing an important new role in tracking climate change in the Arctic.

Scientists have affixed thermometers to the diving mammals to measure the water temperature beneath the pack ice in Baffin Bay, filling in a geographical and seasonal gap in the region’s climate records, as no winter temperatures were previously available given the lack of accessibility.

narwhal-in-water-blue1-300x197The news the narwhal are conveying is no surprise: the cold water beneath the winter pack ice is getting warmer. The new data, published late last month in the Journal of Geophysical Research by a team of University of Washington oceanographers, confirm other measurements taken during summertime studies of the West Greenland Current that show a warming trend in recent years.

While researchers have used oceanographic instruments on other marine mammals in polar climate studies, including elephant seals and bearded seals, this is the first time the narwhal have been engaged. The hard-to-obtain data they can provide is helping scientists make more precise climate predictions in this rapidly warming portion of the planet.

To read more about the research with narwhals, visit Nature News.