Narwhals Threatened by Climate Change, Says Science Writer
Narwhals, the Arctic whales known for their long unicorn-like tusks, could be one of the first victims of climate change, science writer Todd B. McLeish said during a well-attended lecture Saturday.
Speaking at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, McLeish, a publicist for the University of Rhode Island, discussed the future of the narwhal population as detailed in his recent book, “Narwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World.”
Because the narwhal’s diet includes only a few different types of fish and it prefers a narrow and specific habitat, scientists expect that it will be difficult for the mammals to survive the shrinking ice caps and evolving natural environment brought on by climate change, McLeish said.
Warmer waters could also lead to a higher number of killer whales, the narwhals’ chief predator. As the ice melts, commercial fishing and oil exploration will likely expand, resulting in more competition for the narwhal’s food sources and increased disturbances to their habitat.
Although the population is currently stable, McLeish said “fifty or a hundred years certainly seem like timeframes when there will likely be some serious red flags.”
McLeish said the narwhal’s long and storied history was what first drew him to the study of the species. At the lecture, he brought up the narwhal’s role in perpetuating age-old unicorn mythology. The marine mammals have long been compared to the mythical horned-creatures, dating back to the Middle Ages, when narwhal tusks harvested from the Arctic were sold in Europe as “unicorn horns.”
According to McLeish, back then widespread belief in the magical healing powers of the tusks led to their being valued higher than gold. European royalty made drinking cups out of narwhal tusks that they believed counteracted poison. Items of royal furniture like a Danish Coronation Throne were fashioned from the tusks. The Catholic Church even ground them into a powder that it added to sacramental wine to help heal parishioners.
Caitlin E. Andrews ’16 said she most enjoyed McLeish’s “stories about his expeditions,” such as his tale of camping for multiple weeks in Greenland during the season when the country experiences 24 hours of sunlight a day.