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During the summer in Qaanaaq, Greenland, an Inuit hunter paddling next to a resting narwhal observed a thin gauzelike layer coming off the narwhal's body and dissipating into the water. The event lasted only a few seconds, but Connecticut-based dentist Martin Nweeia, a Harvard University and Smithsonian Institution researcher who studies narwhal tusks as his passion, immediately saw the scientific significance of the hunter's observation.
Whereas the beluga, the narwhal's nearest relative, is known to enter warmer estuarine waters in the summer to molt, this skin-renewal process had never been scientifically documented for narwhal, in part because no scientist has ever spent sufficient time in remote Arctic locations to record such an event. "One voice from an Inuit hunter can be more significant than 100 scientists," says Nweeia, who presented his findings at the 18th Inuit Studies Conference in Washington, D.C.
Nweeia, a professor at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, has obtained many more scientific insights from the Inuit elders and hunters who have lived close to the narwhal for thousands of years. Taking a cue from the Inuit who indicated that narwhal tusking was not a sign of aggression, he discovered that the unicornlike tusk was a sensory organ, capable of detecting changes in the ocean environment. Narwhals gently rubbing their tusks together are not dueling, as previously believed, but engaged in a type of ritualistic behavior, Nweeia argues. He also learned that the tusk could bend at least 30 centimeters in any direction without breaking, an observation that he did not believe until more scientific tests demonstrated the tusk’s unusual strength and flexibility.
More scientists now collaborate with indigenous peoples to learn about rare and elusive wildlife. “The biologists are starting to understand that hunters have good eyes, they know what they are looking for, and it can really help them,” says Gabriel Nirlungayuk, director of wildlife and environment for Nunavut Tunngavik, Inc. Nirlungayuk has collaborated with scientists on different research projects.
Reliance on aboriginal insights is particularly crucial in the Arctic, where climate change creates an urgent need to understand local dynamics. “The Arctic is changing rapidly, and often it is just too fast for scientists to keep up with all the details or implications,” says Henry Huntington, science director for the Arctic program at the Pew Environment Group in Alaska.
Changing environmental conditions open unprecedented opportunities for industrial development that has the potential to compromise wildlife habitat. In Nunavut one of the biggest resource extraction efforts ever proposed for the eastern Arctic, the Mary River iron ore project, could have impacts on various species including caribou, bowhead whale, narwhal, beluga and walrus. Scientists and locals combine forces to tackle those major conservation issues.
“We have to try our best to work together in a cooperative way so that we all know as much as we can about how fragile these populations can be,” says Jack Orr, project lead for the Arctic Research Division at Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Orr captures narwhals and fits them with satellite transmitters to understand the whales' diving behaviors and migration routes. Inuit hunters provide information about weather conditions, best timing and locations for accessing the whales.