The enigmatic narwhal
Posted on homepage: 2 February 2009 (GMT+10)
The unique spiral tusk of the narwhal may make it the most unusual marine mammal alive today. Narwhals are difficult to study since they inhabit the northernmost, coldest regions of the ocean. They have been described as a deepwater species and stay very close to the pack ice.1 In the summer some travel into the inlets off Baffin Island and the fjords of Greenland. A recent study of narwhals has revealed some startling facts, particularly about their tusks.
Narwhals are classified in the suborder Odontoceti, toothed whales, which include dolphins, porpoises, and killer whales. This may seem rather odd when you consider the fact that you would not see any teeth if you could look in the mouth of a narwhal. However, the narwhal’s most distinguishing feature, the long spiral tusk found in most males and in some females, is actually a tooth with a most unusual growth pattern.
Centuries ago, the narwhal tusk was sold as a unicorn horn; artists today still often draw the unicorn horn with such a spiral pattern. In reality, the tusk is the upper left incisor that erupts forward through the gums and bores a hole through the upper lip, perhaps the only consistent example of body piercing found in nature! This straight, tapered tooth spirals to the left as it grows up to three metres (10 ft) long in the male. Weighing as much as 10 kg (22 lb), it ranges from one-third to one-half the length of the animal’s body.2 In the few females who have a tusk, it is smaller and narrower than in males. On rare occasions, narwhals have been found to have two tusks. In these instances the tusk on the right is generally smaller, but still has a left-handed spiral.
There has been much debate over the purpose of the tusk. It has often been claimed that it is used in fighting between males. Others have suggested that it might be used in spearing prey, breaking ice, or digging. Recent research has established the startling fact that, whatever else it might turn out to be used for, it functions as a sense organ. Ten million tiny nerve endings connect the central nerve of the narwhal tusk to the tusk surface, which is in contact with the frigid arctic waters! The tusk can detect changes in water temperature, pressure, and particle gradients (e.g. salinity).3,4 Additional studies have found that the tusk is surprisingly strong and flexible; two characteristics which are not usually found together.5 It is hoped that further study may reveal insights leading to the development of improved dental restorative materials for people.
Evolutionists believe all whales, including the narwhal, descended from hoofed mammals (ungulates). To support this belief, they search for animals that seem to show a gradual transition between the two.6 The narwhal tooth is puzzling because it is unlike any other mammal tooth in its spiral structure, asymmetry (only the left tooth is usually involved), and strange distribution (among most males and some females). There is no pattern of gradual change in its alleged ancestors; the tooth appears truly unique.
In reality, a far bigger puzzle for the evolutionist is the origin of teeth in general. In most mammals teeth just happen to be in the right place for chewing. To an evolutionist, all structures such as eyes, teeth, and lungs are the result of random mutations (which add variety) and natural selection (which removes variety). While mutations and natural selection do occur, no such random process can be expected to create information to put well designed structures in the right place at the right time.
Were narwhals originally created with tusks?
In the past, some Christians mistakenly believed that all animals were created by God just as we see them today. While this view recognized God as Creator and that animals were well adapted to their environments, to insist on it ignores the real history of the world given in the Bible. Sea creatures were told after their creation to be fruitful, increase in number, and fill the seas (Genesis 1:21–22).
Similar comments regarding filling the earth were made to birds and humans, and then land animals.7 Thus, God created living things to reproduce and fill the earth and seas. Due to the effects of such catastrophes as the Curse and the global Flood, many harsh and different environments have arisen on the earth since creation. Thus it was important for creatures to be designed to have the built-in potential to vary, so as to be able to adapt and cope with changing environments.
Mutations can add to the variety seen in different creatures. There are thousands of mutations that cause serious disease or death. Some mutations do not appear to harm the animal8,9 while others can even be beneficial under certain special circumstances.10 Some mutations appear to be programmed and occur to help the creature survive in certain unusually harsh conditions.11
Yet in every case studied so far, these mutations involve a loss of information. They can only modify structures that already exist, they cannot explain the origin of well designed structures.
At first glance it would seem that the narwhal tusk must have been designed. It has a unique spiral and many sensitive nerve endings. It can sense changes in temperature and pressure.
However, normal teeth can detect these changes as well; it is just that they typically remain in the mouth. Normal teeth cannot detect changes in salinity because the nerve endings in the centre of the tooth do not contact the surface. Also, normal teeth are protected by a hard layer of enamel, which is essentially absent in the narwhal tusk.
As a veterinarian, there are several characteristics of the narwhal tusk that lead me to believe it is the result of degenerative changes affecting one of the teeth God originally created in the kind that gave rise to today’s narwhal. First, it is asymmetrical, that is it is found on one side, but not the other. Mammals are designed with bilateral symmetry; the left side of the animal is a mirror image of the right.12 When one side appears significantly different from the other, it is a sign of abnormality.
Second, there is no modification in the upper lip that ‘anticipates’ the emergence of the tusk. Instead, the tooth grows right through the upper lip. This is very uncharacteristic of the type of design seen in animals. Normally there are a myriad of things all designed to work together. For example, upper teeth are designed to oppose lower teeth; the tongue is designed to fit behind them; one part of the digestive tract is designed to work together with the other parts for a common goal; nerves and blood vessels are designed to enable the digestive system to work properly and benefit the rest of the body, and so forth.
The tusk is absent in over half the narwhal population (juveniles and most females). This indicates that it is not essential to survival.13 The tusk may provide some advantages to the narwhal in their limited arctic range; however, it is possible that the tusk is one of the reasons that they have such a limited range.
In the fetal stage, the narwhal has six pairs of upper teeth and two pairs of lower teeth. These teeth do not undergo normal development later in life. It is easy to see how teeth that do not completely develop can be the result of degenerative changes. The information for tooth development controls how teeth are formed, when they are formed, and where they are formed.
Just as there is information that starts tooth growth, there is also information that stops it. It appears that something has happened to the information that stops tooth growth for one of the narwhal’s teeth, so a tusk develops.
The spiral structure results from different parts of the tooth growing at different rates. Studying examples of abnormal teeth highlights how astoundingly complex teeth are and how many factors need to work together for their proper development.
The ‘sensational’ tooth of the amazing narwhal reminds us that changes have occurred since creation. In spite of these changes, we can still see the awesome design of our infinitely wise God in His creatures.
Note added June, 2019
Recently a hybrid has been reported between the narwhal (Monodon monoceros) and a beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas), which are the only two species in the family Monodontidae. This hybrid is evidence that both these species belong to the same kind (baramin) of sea creature that God created in the beginning (Genesis 1:20-23). Both the narwhal and the beluga have traits that appear to be modified or lost since creation, but help them adapt to the arctic regions where they live. The narwhals have the modified tooth with an unusual growth pattern; belugas lack a dorsal fin, which enables them to easily swim under the ice. These types of observable changes (relatively minor restructuring and loss) are fundamentally different from those the evolutionists imagine could turn a hoofed land creature into a whale. Evidence of hybridization: Skovrind, M., et al., Hybridization between two high Arctic cetaceans confirmed by genomic analysis, Scientific Reports 9, article number 7729, 2019; doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-44038-0
References and notes
- Reeves, R.R. and Tracey, S., ‘Monodon monoceros’, Mammalian Species 127:1–7, 15 April 1980. Return to text.
- Weighing about 1,450 kg (1.5 tons). Return to text.
- News: Mystery of the world’s strangest tooth solved, British Dental Journal 200(1):8, 2006. Return to text.
- Malkin, C., Interview: Nothing but the tooth, New Scientist 185(2485):46–49, 5 February 2005. Return to text.
- This appears to be related to the amount of mineralization and the direction of the fibres. Narwhal dentin is softer and less mineralized than human or cattle dentin; both narwhal and human cementum are softer and less mineralized than cattle cementum. Brear, K., Currey, J.D., Pond, C.M. and Ramsay, M.A., The mechanical properties of the dentine and cement of the tusk of the narwhal Monodon monoceros compared with those of other mineralized tissues, Arch. Oral. Biol. 34(8):615–621, 1990; Currey, J.D., Brear, K., Zioupos, P., Dependence of mechanical properties on fibre angle in narwhal tusk, a highly oriented biological composite, J. Biomech. 27(7):885–897, 1994. Return to text.
- Williams, A. and Sarfati, J., Not at all like a whale, Creation 27(2):20–22, 2005; <creation.com/pakicetus>. Return to text.
- Genesis 1:22,28, and after the Flood, Genesis 8:17; 9:1. Return to text.
- Lightner, J., Colourful creature coats, Creation 28(4):33–34, 2006. Return to text.
- Lightner, J., The Riddle, Creation 27(4):30–32, 2005; <creation.com/dorset>. Return to text.
- Wieland, C., Beetle bloopers, Creation 19(3):30, 1997; <creation.com/beetle>. Return to text.
- So far, these directed mutations have only been identified in bacteria. Directed mutations pose a problem for evolutionists because they believe mutations to be random, chance events. Directed mutations imply a Programmer for the genome; Lightner, J., Special tools of life, <creation.com/tools>. See also Batten, D., The adaptation of bacteria to feeding on nylon waste, Journal of Creation 17(3):3–5, 2003; <creation.com/nylon>. Return to text.
- This is not true of the viscera (heart, lung, stomach, liver) but is true externally and in the mouth. Return to text.
- Its absence may of course be due to loss mutations, as has happened in many elephant populations. Return to text.