Noise bothers narwhals in the Arctic

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by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report on EuroNews Green discusses research on narwhals done by scientists at the University of Copenhagen and the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources. The scientists studied these unique marine mammals, recognizable by their hypertrophied incisor that looks like a tusk and is believed to have inspired myths about unicorns.

In an isolated fjord on the eastern coast of Greenland, the scientists made underwater noises and observed the narwhal behavior. When exposed to noise, the narwhals stopped emitting noises of their own (which they use to find food), stopped diving deep, and swam close to shore, all behaviors shown when killer whales are present. Killer whales are natural predators of narwhals.

These behavior changes indicate the the narwhals feel threatened by noise. After a week of quiet, with no experimental noises made, the narwhals’ behavior returned to normal.

Why is this important? Climate change means less ice in the Arctic, and ship traffic, mining, and drilling operations are increasing. The increased noise threatens these rare and beautiful creatures, who can detect sounds up to 40 km from their source.

EuroNews reports that “[c]hanges are happening so quickly in the Arctic, that we are afraid that narwhals won’t be able to adapt unless more of an effort is made to protect them,” says Outi Tervo, one of the researchers. “Some areas are so important to narwhals that it could be argued that human disturbances should not be permitted there at all.”


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