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Concept: Narwhal


Recordings of narwhal (Monodon monoceros) echolocation signals were made using a linear 16 hydrophone array in the pack ice of Baffin Bay, West Greenland in 2013 at eleven sites. An average -3 dB beam width of 5.0° makes the narwhal click the most directional biosonar signal reported for any species to date. The beam shows a dorsal-ventral asymmetry with a narrower beam above the beam axis. This may be an evolutionary advantage for toothed whales to reduce echoes from the water surface or sea ice surface. Source level measurements show narwhal click intensities of up to 222 dB pp re 1 μPa, with a mean apparent source level of 215 dB pp re 1 μPa. During ascents and descents the narwhals perform scanning in the vertical plane with their sonar beam. This study provides valuable information for reference sonar parameters of narwhals and for the use of acoustic monitoring in the Arctic.

Concepts: Sonar, Unicorn, Toothed whale, Cetacea, Arctic, Narwhal, Arctic Ocean


Until recent declines in Arctic sea ice levels, narwhals (Monodon monoceros) have lived in relative isolation from human perturbation and sustained predation pressures. The resulting naïvety has made this cryptic, deep-diving cetacean highly susceptible to disturbance, although quantifiable effects have been lacking. We deployed a submersible, animal-borne electrocardiograph-accelerometer-depth recorder to monitor physiological and behavioral responses of East Greenland narwhals after release from net entanglement and stranding. Escaping narwhals displayed a paradoxical cardiovascular down-regulation (extreme bradycardia with heart rate ≤4 beats per minute) superimposed on exercise up-regulation (stroke frequency >25 strokes per minute and energetic costs three to six times the resting rate of energy expenditure) that rapidly depleted onboard oxygen stores. We attribute this unusual reaction to opposing cardiovascular signals-from diving, exercise, and neurocognitive fear responses-that challenge physiological homeostasis.

Concepts: Cetacea, Unicorn, Narwhal, Arctic, Arctic Ocean


The beluga whale is a cetacean that inhabits arctic and subarctic regions, and is the only living member of the genus Delphinapterus. The genome of the beluga whale was determined using DNA sequencing approaches that employed both microfluidic partitioning library and non-partitioned library construction. The former allowed for the construction of a highly contiguous assembly with a scaffold N50 length of over 19 Mbp and total reconstruction of 2.32 Gbp. To aid our understanding of the functional elements, transcriptome data was also derived from brain, duodenum, heart, lung, spleen, and liver tissue. Assembled sequence and all of the underlying sequence data are available at the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) under the Bioproject accession number PRJNA360851A.

Concepts: Liver, Sequence, Beluga whale, Megafauna, Monodontidae, Pour la suite du monde, Cook Inlet, Narwhal


This review critically evaluates the available mercury (Hg) data in Arctic marine biota and the Inuit population against toxicity threshold values. In particular marine top predators exhibit concentrations of mercury in their tissues and organs that are believed to exceed thresholds for biological effects. Species whose concentrations exceed threshold values include the polar bears (Ursus maritimus), beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas), pilot whale (Globicephala melas), hooded seal (Cystophora cristata), a few seabird species, and landlocked Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus). Toothed whales appear to be one of the most vulnerable groups, with high concentrations of mercury recorded in brain tissue with associated signs of neurochemical effects. Evidence of increasing concentrations in mercury in some biota in Arctic Canada and Greenland is therefore a concern with respect to ecosystem health.

Concepts: Arctic, Pilot whale, Bear, Megafauna, Narwhal, Pinniped, Polar bear, Inuit


Although dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) have been trained to match numbers and durations of human vocal bursts [1] and reported to spontaneously match computer-generated whistles [2], spontaneous human voice mimicry has not previously been demonstrated. The first to study white whale (Delphinapterus leucas) sounds in the wild, Schevill and Lawrence [3] wrote that “occasionally the calls would suggest a crowd of children shouting in the distance”. Fish and Mowbary [4] described sound types and reviewed past descriptions of sounds from this vociferous species. At Vancouver Aquarium, Canada, keepers suggested that a white whale about 15 years of age, uttered his name “Lagosi”. Other utterances were not perceptible, being described as “garbled human voice, or Russian, or similar to Chinese” by R.L. Eaton in a self-published account in 1979. However, hitherto no acoustic recordings have shown how such sounds emulate speech and deviate from the usual calls of the species. We report here sound recordings and analysis which demonstrate spontaneous mimicry of the human voice, presumably a result of vocal learning [5], by a white whale.

Concepts: Narwhal, Megafauna, Vocal music, Vocology, Acoustics, Human voice, Singing, Oral communication


Odontocetes (toothed whales) rely upon echoes of their own vocalizations to navigate and find prey underwater [1]. This sensory adaptation, known as echolocation, operates most effectively when using high frequencies, and odontocetes are rivaled only by bats in their ability to perceive ultrasonic sound greater than 100 kHz [2]. Although features indicative of ultrasonic hearing are present in the oldest known odontocetes [3], the significance of this finding is limited by the methods employed and taxa sampled. In this report, we describe a new xenorophid whale (Echovenator sandersi, gen. et sp. nov.) from the Oligocene of South Carolina that, as a member of the most basal clade of odontocetes, sheds considerable light on the evolution of ultrasonic hearing. By placing high-resolution CT data from Echovenator sandersi, 2 hippos, and 23 fossil and extant whales in a phylogenetic context, we conclude that ultrasonic hearing, albeit in a less specialized form, evolved at the base of the odontocete radiation. Contrary to the hypothesis that odontocetes evolved from low-frequency specialists [4], we find evidence that stem cetaceans, the archaeocetes, were more sensitive to high-frequency sound than their terrestrial ancestors. This indicates that selection for high-frequency hearing predates the emergence of Odontoceti and the evolution of echolocation.

Concepts: Blowhole, Toothed whales, Evolution, Narwhal, Toothed whale, Ultrasound, Cetacea, Sperm whale


Odontocetes (toothed whales, dolphins and porpoises) hunt and navigate through dark and turbid aquatic environments using echolocation; a key adaptation that relies on the same principles as sonar. Among echolocating vertebrates, odontocetes are unique in producing high-frequency vocalizations at the phonic lips, a constriction in the nasal passages just beneath the blowhole, and then using air sinuses and the melon to modulate their transmission. All extant odontocetes seem to echolocate; however, exactly when and how this complex behaviour–and its underlying anatomy–evolved is largely unknown. Here we report an odontocete fossil, Oligocene in age (approximately 28 Myr ago), from South Carolina (Cotylocara macei, gen. et sp. nov.) that has several features suggestive of echolocation: a dense, thick and downturned rostrum; air sac fossae; cranial asymmetry; and exceptionally broad maxillae. Our phylogenetic analysis places Cotylocara in a basal clade of odontocetes, leading us to infer that a rudimentary form of echolocation evolved in the early Oligocene, shortly after odontocetes diverged from the ancestors of filter-feeding whales (mysticetes). This was followed by enlargement of the facial muscles that modulate echolocation calls, which in turn led to marked, convergent changes in skull shape in the ancestors of Cotylocara, and in the lineage leading to extant odontocetes.

Concepts: Narwhal, Toothed whales, Blowhole, Animal echolocation, Dolphin, Toothed whale, Sperm whale, Cetacea


Increasing anthropogenic activities in the Arctic represent an enhanced threat for oil pollution in a marine environment that is already at risk from climate warming. In particular, this applies to species with free-living pelagic larvae that aggregate in surface waters and under the sea ice where hydrocarbons are likely to remain for extended periods of time due to low temperatures. We exposed the positively buoyant eggs of polar cod (Boreogadus saida), an arctic keystone species, to realistic concentrations of a crude oil water-soluble fraction (WSF), mimicking exposure of eggs aggregating under the ice to oil WSF leaking from brine channels following encapsulation in ice. Total hydrocarbon and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon levels were in the ng/L range, with most exposure concentrations below the limits of detection throughout the experiment for all treatments. The proportion of viable, free-swimming larvae decreased significantly with dose and showed increases in the incidence and severity of spine curvature, yolk sac alterations and a reduction in spine length. These effects are expected to compromise the motility, feeding capacity, and predator avoidance during critical early life stages for this important species. Our results imply that the viability and fitness of polar cod early life stages is significantly reduced when exposed to extremely low and environmentally realistic levels of aqueous hydrocarbons, which may have important implications for arctic food web dynamics and ecosystem functioning.

Concepts: Arctic shrinkage, Arctic Ocean, Gadidae, Narwhal, Water, Carbon, Hydrocarbon, Petroleum


The erupted tusk of the narwhal exhibits sensory ability. The hypothesized sensory pathway begins with ocean water entering through cementum channels to a network of patent dentinal tubules extending from the dentinocementum junction to the inner pulpal wall. Circumpulpal sensory structures then signal pulpal nerves terminating near the base of the tusk. The maxillary division of the fifth cranial nerve then transmits this sensory information to the brain. This sensory pathway was first described in published results of patent dentinal tubules, and evidence from dissection of tusk nerve connection via the maxillary division of the fifth cranial nerve to the brain. New evidence presented here indicates that the patent dentinal tubules communicate with open channels through a porous cementum from the ocean environment. The ability of pulpal tissue to react to external stimuli is supported by immunohistochemical detection of neuronal markers in the pulp and gene expression of pulpal sensory nerve tissue. Final confirmation of sensory ability is demonstrated by significant changes in heart rate when alternating solutions of high-salt and fresh water are exposed to the external tusk surface. Additional supporting information for function includes new observations of dentinal tubule networks evident in unerupted tusks, female erupted tusks, and vestigial teeth. New findings of sexual foraging divergence documented by stable isotope and fatty acid results add to the discussion of the functional significance of the narwhal tusk. The combined evidence suggests multiple tusk functions may have driven the tooth organ system’s evolutionary development and persistence. Anat Rec, 297:599-617, 2014. © 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Concepts: Tusk, Ocean, Water, Maxillary nerve, Narwhal, Sensory system, Cranial nerves, Nervous system


The evolution of biosonar (production of high-frequency sound and reception of its echo) was a key innovation of toothed whales and dolphins (Odontoceti) that facilitated phylogenetic diversification and rise to ecological predominance. Yet exactly when high-frequency hearing first evolved in odontocete history remains a fundamental question in cetacean biology. Here, we show that archaic odontocetes had a cochlea specialized for sensing high-frequency sound, as exemplified by an Oligocene xenorophid, one of the earliest diverging stem groups. This specialization is not as extreme as that seen in the crown clade. Paired with anatomical correlates for high-frequency signal production in Xenorophidae, this is strong evidence that the most archaic toothed whales possessed a functional biosonar system, and that this signature adaptation of odontocetes was acquired at or soon after their origin.

Concepts: Dolphin, Phylogenetics, Evolution, Biology, Narwhal, Toothed whale, Sperm whale, Cetacea