Research uncovers the mysterious lives of narwhals

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February 9, 2018

A pod of narwhals in Melville Bay, Greenland.Kristin Laidre/University of Washington

Narwhals are some of the most elusive creatures in the ocean, spending most of their lives in deep water far from shore. But research being presented at the Ocean Sciences Meeting in Portland Feb. 12 may shed a bit of light on these enigmatic marine mammals.
New research shows narwhals may prefer to congregate near unique glacier fjords with thick ice fronts and low to moderate calving activity, where icebergs break off infrequently. It appears narwhals prefer the freshwater coming off still, serene glaciers over the silt-filled runoff discharged from very active glaciers.
The findings could help scientists understand a little more about the elusive narwhal and how these marine mammals might fare in a changing climate, according to the researchers.
“Arctic marine mammals are really good indicators of climate change because they are very specialized,” said Kristin Laidre, a marine biologist at the University of Washington’s Polar Science Center and the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. She will present the research Monday at the 2018 Ocean Sciences Meeting, co-sponsored by the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography, The Oceanography Society and the American Geophysical Union. “They are finely attuned to specific environmental conditions, so they are good indicator species for how the physical changes many scientists are documenting in the Arctic can reverberate throughout the ecosystem.”
Scientists have known narwhals spend time at the fronts of glaciers in Greenland during the summer, which are hotspots for marine mammals, seabirds and fishes, but they did not know why narwhals have an affinity for these glaciers.
To better understand what glacier features narwhals prefer, Laidre and her colleagues used data from 15 narwhals outfitted with recorders that tracked each animal’s movements over four years in the 1990s and 2000s in …

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