Stressed-Out Narwhals Don't Know Whether To Freeze Or Flee, Scientists Find : The Two-Way After being caught in a net, narwhals appear to get confused about what to do. Researchers say the whales' befuddlement could provide clues about how they will adapt to a changing Arctic.
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Stressed-Out Narwhals Don't Know Whether To Freeze Or Flee, Scientists Find

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Stressed-Out Narwhals Don't Know Whether To Freeze Or Flee, Scientists Find

Stressed-Out Narwhals Don't Know Whether To Freeze Or Flee, Scientists Find

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/569160429/569345976" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's Friday. And we all need some wonder in our lives. So let's talk about narwhals, shall we? What's a narwhal, you ask? They are whales with a long, spiral tusk, which makes them the unicorns of the sea. These elusive creatures live in the far north in an icy world. But it turns out narwhals are not cool under stress. Here's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: When a colleague contacted Terrie Williams about doing a study of narwhals...

TERRIE WILLIAMS: I said yes 'cause they're cool (laughter), you know? And I didn't know at all what I was getting into at that point.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Williams is at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She's investigated how dolphins and seals swim and dive by putting wearable monitors on the animals. She was intrigued by the idea of trying it with a deep-diving whale that can go down more than a mile.

(SOUNDBITE OF NARWHAL CLICKS)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This is the sound of narwhals off the east coast of Greenland. That's where Williams joined scientists who were netting narwhals in shallow water to tag them. While the narwhals got tagged...

WILLIAMS: We were able to suction-cup electrodes on for the EKG, suction-cup our instrumentation on and have them swim with them anywhere from one day to four days at a time and collect thousands of dives.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She was surprised to see that the dives that happened immediately after the narwhals were released from the net looked weird. The animal's heart rates plummeted, going from about 60 beats a minute...

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARTBEAT)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...To only three or four beats a minute. But at the same time, these narwhals were swimming away as fast as they could. Williams had never seen anything like it.

WILLIAMS: This is an unusual reaction to an unusual kind of threat.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says their heart rate suggested a freeze reaction to fear, even as they tried to flee. Her team's findings appear in the journal Science. Kristin Laidre is a narwhal researcher at the University of Washington. She says narwhals have long lived isolated from people in a distant, icy, often dark environment. So changes can have a big impact.

KRISTIN LAIDRE: So I think these data support that - you know, that this species is not used to any kind of disturbance. And it is definitely a physiological stressor for them.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says as the Arctic ice melts, there's more interest in oil and gas drilling and new shipping routes. So scientists need to understand how the narwhals might react. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAUK'S "HELLO NARWHAL")

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