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.

View a slide show of scientific collaboration around narwhals.

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.

Local Arctic residents are traveling, hunting, boating and observing wildlife on the land and ocean throughout the year whereas scientists only conduct field studies for a limited time during the summer. “We might get a piece of the puzzle, but we are never going to see the puzzle,” Nweeia says. For example, in Barrow, Alaska, Saint Lawrence Island Yupik whalers helped improve census methods for bowhead whales, telling scientists they could not see all the whales from the edge of the ice, along with sharing insights on bowheads’ ability to swim through the ice where they cannot be seen. Biologists also built on Iñupiaq observations to learn that bowheads possess a sense of smell, unlike most other whales.

In contrast to scientists who seek to isolate and study one variable in the environment, traditional knowledge–holders look for relationships within the whole environment, which helps science explore new territory. Huntington learned from Iñupiaq and Yupik elders that beavers damned streams where fish spawned, hence impacting belugas’ food source in Alaska. “I have yet to meet a biologist telling me with a straight face that he would have anticipated a connection between beavers and beluga,” he says.

Scientific research in remote Arctic regions is expensive and logistically challenging, particularly for species like orcas (killer whales) that cover large areas and cannot be easily surveyed through standard methods. Climate change and the resulting loss of sea ice during the summer have opened new hunting territory for the killer whales in the eastern Canadian Arctic, but scientists knew very little about these animals until they tapped into the traditional knowledge of Inuit hunters who shared unique firsthand descriptions of orca hunting tactics.

“It gives us a real jump start in knowing what to be looking for,” says Steve Ferguson, a research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada who led a survey of traditional knowledge on killer whales in Nunavut waters. Learning from Inuit hunters that killer whales use specific methods to hunt bowheads, beluga, narwhal and seals, Ferguson discovered at least two different killer whale groups based on prey preferences.

Sometimes the locals share qualitative, subtle information that challenges scientific minds. Orr recalls that an Inuit hunter once told him that narwhals get cold when holes are made through their backs to fit satellite tags. “I may not necessarily believe that, but I can’t say he is wrong, either,” Orr says. He since then improved the tag design to minimize impacts on the whales.

When Nweeia learned about narwhal molting for the first time, he knew that he had to part with the traditional scientific approach that validates facts through large sample sizes. “These hunters spent their whole lives around narwhal, and the reason why their knowledge is valid and should not be questioned as much is because their lives depend on it.”