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Scientists tag an East Greenland narwhal to study its sounds. Photo: Susanna Blackwell/Greeneridge Sciences, Inc.

Scientists have captured the sounds made by the elusive and unusual East Greenland narwhal — whose long horn inspired various tales, including that of an evil stepmother who wove her long hair into a tusk.

Little is known about these narwhals, who live "in a very pristine environment where little is known about the adaptations of the animals that thrive in these remote regions," study author Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen tells Axios. He says he's been working on safely capturing the whales since 1993 and on improving recording methods since 2012

After capturing six narwhals in Scoresby Sound, which is the world's largest and probably least-known fjord system, the team tagged them with special acoustic and GPS satellite instruments. They recorded 533 hours of audio, matching the sounds with their location and likely activity.

They noted three types of sounds: clicks, buzzes and calls. Calls, likely how they communicate, tend to happen closer to the surface at less than 100 meters (but often less than 7 meters). Clicks and buzzes, used as echolocation to find food, often occur between 350–650 meters below the surface.

The research team was surprised "[t]hat these whales are more specialized than we thought initially. They depend on very specific water depths in relatively small areas for feeding on a few prey species," says Mads Peter, who works for the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources.

The concern amongst many scientists is that two main climate change effects on the Arctic — warming sea temperatures and increased human and industrial activities from disappearing sea ice — could affect the small population of narwhals. These creatures rely on sound for communication, navigation and feeding.

Mads Peter says:

"Narwhals may abandon areas with increased warming and loss of their preferred prey species, but they may also avoid areas with underwater noise from seismic explorations, oil drilling, shipping, sand dredging, mining and fishery."

This research "is inspiring," says UC-Santa Cruz' Terrie Williams, who was not part of the study. She says it's important to gather more information on the potential impact of human noise:

"There are concerns that anthropogenic noises will cause changes in critical vocal behaviors of the animals — imagine not being able to locate members of your pod, or locate fish to eat.  For deep-diving cetaceans such as narwhals these sounds are vital to their survival." 

Dive deeper: Listen to rare narwhal recordings captured by the team and read the study published in PLOS ONE on Wednesday.

Go deeper

Wall Street braces for more turbulence ahead of Election Day

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Wall Street is digging in for a potentially rocky period as Election Day gets closer.

Why it matters: Investors are facing a "three-headed monster," Brian Belski, chief investment strategist at BMO Capital Markets, tells Axios — a worsening pandemic, an economic stimulus package in limbo, and an imminent election.

Dave Lawler, author of World
2 hours ago - World

How Biden might tackle the Iran deal

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Four more years of President Trump would almost certainly kill the Iran nuclear deal — but the election of Joe Biden wouldn’t necessarily save it.

The big picture: Rescuing the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is near the top of Biden's foreign policy priority list. He says he'd re-enter the deal once Iran returns to compliance, and use it as the basis on which to negotiate a broader and longer-lasting deal with Iran.

Kamala Harris, the new left's insider

Photo illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photo: Joe Buglewicz/Getty Images     

Progressive leaders see Sen. Kamala Harris, if she's elected vice president, as their conduit to a post-Biden Democratic Party where the power will be in younger, more diverse and more liberal hands.

  • Why it matters: The party's rising left sees Harris as the best hope for penetrating Joe Biden's older, largely white inner circle.

If Biden wins, Harris will become the first woman, first Black American and first Indian American to serve as a U.S. vice president — and would instantly be seen as the first in line for the presidency should Biden decide against seeking a second term.