7 Fascinating Facts About Narwhals

Wikimedia Commons
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.

11 Facts About the Library of Congress

Thomas Jefferson Building of the LOC. Image Credit: TheAgency via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Thomas Jefferson Building of the LOC. Image Credit: TheAgency via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

For more than two centuries, the Library of Congress (LOC) and its staff have served as invaluable resources for American legislators. But their mission isn’t limited to U.S. politics. The Library of Congress catalog includes iconic films, historical documents, and your tweets about lunch. In short, it's a cultural treasure. Here are 11 facts worth knowing about the Washington, D.C.-based establishment.

1. The Library of Congress is the nation's oldest cultural institution.

Founded in 1800, the Library of Congress is America’s oldest federal cultural institution. It was established by the same bill that officially moved the capital from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. The library was conceived of as a resource available exclusively to members of Congress, containing "such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress." That remains the case today, though citizens can read books on site or request them at their local library through an interlibrary loan.

2. Thomas Jefferson helped rebuild the Library of Congress catalog after a fire.

Not long after it was established, tragedy struck the Library of Congress: Its contents were destroyed when the Capitol Building was set on fire by British troops during the War of 1812. Approximately 3000 books (mostly law-related) were lost in the blaze, but luckily a friend of Washington D.C. owned a collection that was even bigger. Thomas Jefferson’s personal library comprised well over 6000 volumes, making it the largest library in the country at the time. He agreed to sell all of his books to Congress for $23,950 in 1815. Jefferson's contributions significantly expanded the scope of the library, by including books on art, science, and philosophy. (The increased diversity of the collection was a subject of criticism at the time, to which Jefferson responded by saying "there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”) Sadly, the library met with another tragedy when a second fire tore through it on Christmas Eve 1851, burning two-thirds of Jefferson’s contribution.

3. James Madison first proposed the Library of Congress.

Seventeen years prior to the LOC's official formation, James Madison proposed the idea of a special library for Congress. He planted the idea as a Continental Congress member in 1783 when he suggested compiling a list of books to which lawmakers could refer. As president, Madison approved the purchase of Jefferson’s personal library in 1814.

4. It makes Congress's job a lot easier.

Members of Congress drafting legislation don’t necessarily need to do the nitty-gritty research themselves: There’s a whole team [PDF] of lawyers, librarians, economists, and scientists employed through the Library of Congress to do it for them. Established in 1914, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) is a legislative department within the LOC responsible for supporting lawmakers through every step of the lawmaking process. Based on what’s asked of them, CRS employees supply House and Senate members with reports, briefings, seminars, presentations, or consultations detailing research on the issue in question. The CRS is currently staffed with 600 analysts. In any given year, a single researcher responds to hundreds of congressional requests.

5. It's the largest library on Earth.

With over 164 million items in its inventory, the LOC is the world’s largest library. In addition to the 38 million books and other printed materials on the premises, the institution contains millions of photographs, recordings, and films. It also houses some record-breaking collections: more maps, comics, newspapers, and phonebooks can each be found there than any other place on Earth. The whole thing is stored on about 838 miles of bookshelves.

6. The Library of Congress contains some surprising items.

The Library of Congress is home to an eclectic collection, with books ranging in size from a tiny copy of “Ole King Cole” to a 5-foot-by-7-foot photo book filled with color images of Bhutan. Some items, like a Gutenberg Bible and a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, feel right at home in the historic library. Others, like Rosa Parks’s peanut butter pancakes recipe, are a bit more unexpected. Additional noteworthy artifacts include Bob Hope’s joke collection, George Gershwin’s piano, and the contents of Abraham Lincoln's pockets the night he was shot.

7. The Library of Congress owns materials from around the world.

The Library of Congress isn’t solely dedicated to American documents. The institution possesses materials acquired from all around the globe, including 3 million items from Asia and 10 million items in the Iberian, Latin American, and Caribbean collections. Over half of the books in their inventory are written in a language other than English. In total, over 460 languages are represented, and their end goal is to eventually have at least one item from every nation. The LOC also maintains overseas offices in New Delhi, India; Cairo, Egypt; Islamabad, Pakistan; Jakarta, Indonesia; Nairobi, Kenya; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to acquire, catalog, and preserve items that might be hard to access otherwise.

8. It preserves America's most important films.

Since the National Film Preservation Act was passed in 1988, 700 "culturally, historically, or aesthetically" significant films have been selected for the LOC archives. Up to 25 entries are chosen each year by a board of industry professionals, and the only rule is that submissions must be at least 10 years old. Beyond that, they can be anything from beloved comedy blockbusters like Ghostbusters (1984) to health class classics like The Story of Menstruation (1946). Pieces added to the National Film Registry are kept in a climate-controlled storage space where they can theoretically last for centuries.

9. The Library of Congress serves patrons of all abilities.

In 1931 the Library of Congress launched The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). Today the service offers free Braille and audio books, either through digital downloads or physical deliveries, to people with visual impairments or other issues that limit their reading abilities. Offerings include a wide array of books and magazines, as well as the world’s largest collection of Braille music. NLS librarians are currently undertaking the painstaking process of scanning every sheet of Braille music onto their computer system. Once that project is complete, the National Library Service’s entire collection will be fully digitized.

10. Only three librarians of Congress have been actual librarians.

When nominating someone to head the largest library in the world, presidents rarely choose actual librarians. They’re more likely to select a scholar, historian, or some other veteran of academia for the job. Of the 14 Librarians of Congress we’ve had, current title-holder Carla Hayden is one of just three to come into the role with prior librarian experience. (She is also the first woman and the first African American to hold the job.) On top of running the world’s largest library, Hayden is also responsible for managing relations with Congress, selecting the Poet Laureate, and overseeing the U.S. Copyright Office.

11. It receives every public tweet you write.

The government isn’t just responsible for cataloging tweets coming out of the White House. In 2010, Twitter agreed to donate every public tweet in its archive to the Library of Congress. That amounts to several hundred million tweets a day. In addition to documenting the rise and fall of #dressgate and live tweets of The Walking Dead, the archive would also act as an invaluable data source for tracking language and societal trends. Unfortunately, that archive isn’t much closer to being completed than the day the deal was announced. The LOC has yet to develop a way to organize the information, and for the past seven years, unprocessed tweets have been have been stored out of sight on a server. There’s still no word on what the next step will be, but that might change with the newest Librarian of Congress. Unlike her predecessor, Carla Hayden is known for taking a digital-forward approach to librarianship.

Merriam-Webster Just Added Hundreds of New Words to the Dictionary—Here Are 25 of Them

iStock.com/xxz114
iStock.com/xxz114

The editors of Merriam-Webster's dictionary know better than most people how quickly language evolves. In April 2019 alone, they added more than 640 words to the dictionary, from old terms that have developed new meanings to words that are products of the digital age.

Entertainment fans will recognize a few of the new words on Merriam-Webster's list: Buzzy (generating speculation or attention), bottle episode (an episode of a television series confined to one setting), and EGOT (winning an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony) have all received the dictionary's stamp of approval.

Some terms reflect the rise of digital devices in our everyday lives, such as unplug and screen time. Other words have been around for centuries, but started appearing in new contexts in recent years. According to Merriam-Webster, snowflake can now mean “someone who is overly sensitive," purple can describe an area split between Democrat and Republican voters, and Goldilocks can mean “an area of planetary orbit in which temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold to support life."

You can read 25 of the new words below. And for even more recent additions to the dictionary, check out Merriam-Webster's list from last September.

  1. Bioabsorbable

  1. Bottle episode

  1. Bottom surgery

  1. Buzzy

  1. EGOT

  1. Garbage time

  1. Gender nonconforming

  1. Geosmin

  1. Gig economy

  1. Go-cup

  1. Goldilocks

  1. On-brand

  1. Page view

  1. Peak

  1. Purple

  1. Vulture capitalism

  1. Qubit

  1. Salutogenesis

  1. Screen time

  1. Snowflake

  1. Stan

  1. Tailwind

  1. Top surgery

  1. Traumatology

  1. Unplug

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