A horse with a long, wand-shaped horn: this legendary creature, that is said to have supernatural healing powers, doesn't play a magic part just in Harry Potter, but also in the latest box office fantasy "Narnia". When unicorn horns suddenly appeared in the middle ages, traders could demand a mountain of gold for the ten kilo heavy ivory spears. Europe's ruling houses let them be turned into sceptres and drinking vessels. One such unicorn treasure was worth 10,000 pounds to Queen Elizabeth I. in the 16th century – allegedly just as much as it cost to build a castle back then. And the Habsburg Emperor Charles V. is said to have settled his state debts to the Mark Counts of Bayreuth with two "unicorns". – a good trade, because the emperor managed to stage it just in time, before the Danish zoologist Ole Worm exposed the tusk of the arctic narwhale in 1638.
For research scientists this ocean mammal, the "monodon monoceros" (latin name), up to five metres in length, and its tusk, unique in nature, is today almost as secret as the fairytale horse itself. Does the narwhale fight against rivals with this "lance" beneath the pack ice? Does it use it to burrow in the mud for food? Does it spear fish where possible? Or should the awkward thing just influence the female narwhales, which are very rarely horned?
A research team by the US dentist Dr. Martin Nweeia went on the trail of the "ocean unicorn" and asked the Inuit, the original inhabitants of Alaska, for knowledge that has been handed down over the years.
Dr. Nweeia in our interview: "Actually the narwhale has two such tusks from birth, but the left one is the one which always develops. For a long time the Inuit, who get their vitamin C from the meat of this mammal, have used these tusks as rods for their tents because they are surprisingly elastic. This is because narwhale tusks are actually formed backwards: soft on the outside and hard on the inside. The complete opposite of a normal tooth. For us this made it clear that the whale did not use its horn as a battering tool."
The scientists finally came across the true "magic" powers of the unicorn under the microscope: up to the surface the tooth is interspersed with many millions of nerve canals, making it extremely sensitive – similar to an open neck of a tooth in a human. Like using a highly sensitive multi-functional antenna, the narwhale is able to measure temperature and pressure and thus possesses an inbuilt weather station. It can detect the smallest movements of fish and analyse the composition of the water. Vital survival information for the pack ice channels in the arctic that freeze over quickly, that make the narwhale's single horn an omniscient "wisdom tooth"...