7 Fascinating Facts About Narwhals

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Wikimedia Commons

There are few creatures I find so fascinating as the narwhal. Like many tusked animals, this arctic whale has a majestic quality to it. In medieval times, its long, straight tusk was often given to royalty, passed off as a “unicorn horn.” In the 16th century, a narwhal tusk worth £10,000 was given to Queen Elizabeth. Today, the narwhal still holds our interest, and its tusk remains one of the most mysterious things about these creatures. Here’s what we know about them.

1. Its tusk is actually a tooth

While it might appear to be situated in the center of its head, the narwhal’s tusk is actually an exaggerated front left tooth that protrudes from the upper lip. The right front tooth is small, and usually remains in the mouth. Stranger still, while most teeth (including human teeth) have a hard exterior and a soft, sensitive interior, narwhal teeth are the opposite. “No big surprise. It's been opposite in every other way,” Martin Nweeia, a clinical instructor at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, told NPR after making this discovery. “But to find a tooth that is soft on the outside and has its most dense part around the pulp was completely odd.”

2. The tusk can grow to be 10 feet long

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Narwhal tusks grow throughout the animals’ entire lives and can reach incredible lengths. While the tusk as a whole is straight—the only straight tusk we know of, in fact—a closer look reveals that as it grows, it spirals to the left.

3. It can bend about a foot before breaking

Its tough core and soft outer layer result in a tusk that is both strong and flexible. It can bend significantly without cracking, which is important for a tusk as long as the narwhal’s.

4. We’re not entirely sure what it’s for

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History has numerous explanations for the narwhal’s massive tusk. One theory is that it can be used as a weapon, though this claim lacks sufficient evidence. Another suggests it is an accessory for finding mates and asserting dominance, much like peacock feathers or deer antlers. But the most recent theory, produced by Nweeia and his team, suggests it acts as a sort of environmental sensor. According Nweeia’s research, the tusk is porous and full of nerves, taking in external stimuli like water pressure, temperature, and salinity, and sending information back to the brain. To test this theory, Nweeia fitted narwhals with a kind of “jacket” that insulated the tusk from environmental factors. Then, researchers pumped the jacket full of water samples of varying salinity levels to mimic different kinds of sea ice. They found that different levels of salinity caused the narwhals’ heart rates to fluctuate, indicating they could sense the change and had a physical reaction to it. “But regardless of the reason, the results suggest that narwhals can funnel water into their tusks to measure its salt concentration,” Nweeia said.

5. Not all narwhals have tusks

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In most tusked animals, the tusks appear in both males and females. However, in narwhals, only the males and about 15 percent of females have tusks. This is confusing to researchers. If indeed the narwhal tusk is a mechanism for sensing the environment, as recent studies suggest, why wouldn’t such an evolutionary trait be inherited by females as well? This perhaps lends more evidence to the theory that the tusk is mainly an accessory for garnering attention and establishing dominance among males.

6. Their skin is rich in vitamin C

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In fact, there is roughly as much vitamin C in one ounce of narwhal skin as there is in one ounce of oranges. Narwhal skin is a primary source of vitamins for the Inuit people of the Arctic. According to the BBC, “without the narwhal it is doubtful whether the Inuit would have survived in some parts of the Arctic.”

7. There are none in captivity

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Unlike their close relatives, beluga whales, narwhals do not thrive in captivity. In the '60s and '70s, several attempts at capturing and keeping narwhals resulted in all of the animals dying within several months. In fact, all narwhals kept in captivity have died. Some animals simply aren’t meant to be captured.

5 Wild Facts About Mall Madness

Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The mall, home of fashion brands, bookstores, and anchor locations like Sears, was a must-visit location for Americans in the 1980s and 1990s—and especially for teenagers. Teens also played Mall Madness, a board game from Milton Bradley introduced in 1988 that tried to capture the excitement of soft pretzels and high-interest credit card shopping in one convenient tabletop game. Navigating a two-story shopping mall, the player who successfully spends all of their disposable income to acquire six items from the shopping list and return to the parking lot wins.

If you’re nostalgic for this simulated spending spree, you're in luck: Hasbro will be bringing Mall Madness back in fall 2020. Until then, check out some facts about the game’s origins.

1. Mall Madness was the subject of a little controversy.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Milton Bradley put a focus on the tween demographic. Their Dream Phone tasked young players with finding the boy of their dreams; Mall Madness, which began as an analog game but quickly added an electronic voice component, served to portray tweens as frenzied shoppers. As a result, the game drew some criticism upon release for its objective—to spend as much money as possible—and for ostensibly portraying the tweens playing as “bargain-crazy, credit-happy fashion plates,” according to Adweek. Milton Bradley public relations manager Mark Morris argued that the game taught players “how to judiciously spend their money.”

2. The original Mall Madness may not be the same one you remember.

The electronic version of Mall Madness remains the most well-known version of the game, but Milton Bradley introduced a miniature version in 1988 that was portable and took the form of an audio cassette. With the game board folded in the case, it looks like a music tape. Opened, the tri-fold board resembles the original without the three-dimensional plastic mall pieces. It was one of six games the company promoted in the cassette packaging that year.

3. Mall Madness was not the only shopping game on the market.

At the same time Mall Madness was gaining in popularity, consumers could choose from two other shopping-themed board games: Let’s Go Shopping from the Pressman Toy Corporation and Meet Me At the Mall from Tyco. Let’s Go Shopping tasks girls with completing a fashion outfit, while Meet Me At the Mall rewards the player who amasses the most items before the mall closes.

4. There was a Hannah Montana version of Mall Madness.

In the midst of Hannah Montana madness in 2008, Hasbro—which acquired Milton Bradley—released a Miley Cyrus-themed version of the game. Players control fictional Disney Channel singing sensation Hannah Montana as she shops for items. There was also A Littlest Pet Shop version of the game, with the tokens reimagined as animals.

5. Mall Madness is a collector’s item.

Because, for the moment, Hasbro no longer produces Mall Madness, a jolt of nostalgia will cost you a few dollars. The game, which originally sold for $30, can fetch $70 or more on eBay and other secondhand sites.

10 'Nuts' That Aren't Actually Nuts

None of these "nuts" are truly nuts.
None of these "nuts" are truly nuts.
margouillatphotos/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Who doesn’t love a pedantic houseguest? Next time you’re at a dinner party and someone breaks out the mixed nuts, seize the moment and let everyone know that a lot of the tasty treats we call nuts don’t actually merit the title. Botanists define a “nut” as a dry, one-seeded fruit encased in a hardened ovary wall (called a pericarp). Genuine nuts are fused to their shells and won’t naturally break open upon reaching maturity. Hazelnuts fit the criteria. So do chestnuts. But these ever-popular snack foods sure don’t.

1. Peanuts

The star ingredient of America's favorite nut butter isn't actually a nut. Instead, peanuts are considered legumes, along with soybeans, lentils, and chickpeas. Unlike nuts, most legumes come in self-opening pods—which may or may not grow underground, depending on the species. 

2. Almonds

A group of almonds in wood bowl atop a rustic table
These almonds formed inside a fleshy fruit.
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Almonds are seeds found within the fleshy, peach-like fruits of the Asian Prunus dulcis tree. They’ve earned a spot on our list because actual nuts don’t come wrapped up in softened fruit matter. So how do botanists classify almonds? As drupe seeds. Briefly stated, a drupe is a soft fruit with a hard inner shell. (Think peach pits.)

3. Cashews

Like almonds, cashews are drupe seeds pulled from soft fruit packages. The trail mix staples poke out of red, yellow, or green “cashew apples” that grow on South American trees. Cashew seeds are naturally protected by a toxin-coated outer shell that's roasted to neutralize the acid. In spite of this defense mechanism, the yummy snacks were soon embraced by Portuguese explorers and distributed across the globe.

4. Walnuts

A squirrel eating walnuts in a park
The walnuts this squirrel is noshing on are drupes, not nuts.
Serhii Ivashchuk/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Hey look, it’s another member of the drupe clan! Walnuts inhabit green fruit on temperate trees in the genus Juglans. Most of the seeds that end up on American dining room tables come from the English walnut tree, Juglans regia [PDF]. Even if you don’t eat the drupes, you can probably find a use for them: Walnut shells have been incorporated into everything from cosmetic products to kitty litter.

5. Pine nuts

About 20 pine tree species—including the Italian stone pine—produce big seeds that get harvested en masse. Those seeds are removed from cones in a meticulous process, which accounts for their high selling prices.

5. Brazil Nuts

You’ll encounter Brazil nuts all over the Amazon rainforest, in such countries as Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and (of course) Brazil. They come from a hardened 4-to-6-pound pod containing up to two dozen seeds that might become trees someday. The pods are so hefty, getting bonked on the head by a falling one is enough to stun or even kill you.  Surprisingly, Brazil Nuts can also be fairly radioactive thanks to the trees' roots, which grow deep within radium-rich soil.

7. Macadamia Nuts

Rows of trees at an Australian Macadamia orchard
An Australian macadamia orchard filled with the country's native drupe.
oxime/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Gympie, Queensland, has an odd claim to fame: Approximately 70 percent of all the macadamia nuts on Earth are descended from trees grown in the Australian town. Macadamias are an ecological staple in Queensland and New South Wales. But—stop us if this sounds familiar—their so-called “nuts” are drupes.

8. Pistachios

Not only are pistachios drupes, but they’ve got shells that automatically open with a literal popping noise once the contents reach a certain size. When all’s said and done, though, at least pistachios are Frank Drebin-approved.

9. Pecans

The Algonquian term for “nut that requires a stone to crack” gave us the English word pecan. Wild pecans can be gathered in Mexico and the United States—they’re true North American treasures. Name origin aside, they can’t accurately be called nuts. Botanists usually refer to them as drupes, but because of their tough shells, the label “drupaceous nuts” might be more appropriate. Either way, pecans aren’t true nuts. They make for great pies, though.

10. Coconuts

A monkey sticks out its tongue while eating a coconut
This cheeky monkey seems to be enjoying its delicious drupe.
Volga2012/iStock via Getty Images Plus

A drupe of unusual size, the coconut is a fibrous juggernaut that bears a single seed. The whitish fleshy interior can be immersed in hot water and then rung out through a cloth to produce coconut milk. Meanwhile, the outer shells are responsible for some of the most delightfully bizarre Guinness World Records categories, such as “most green coconuts smashed with the head in one minute.” (You can see other unusual Guinness World Record categories here.)

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