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BYU: Narwhal exhibit comes to Provo from Smithsonian Institution

By Taylor Nelson - BYU | Oct 23, 2021

A traveling exhibit on narwhals from the Smithsonian Institution will come to BYU's Life Science Museum for the fall. (Courtesy BYU photo)

A traveling exhibit from the world’s largest museum complex, the Smithsonian Institution, has made BYU’s Life Science Museum its home this fall.

Visitors have until Jan. 9, 2022, to learn firsthand about the unicorn of the Arctic, the narwhal. This enigmatic sea creature, once believed to be a myth, is actually a small whale species. Museum patrons can marvel at a 16-foot-tall fiberglass model and skull castings of a narwhal, interactive items for children, and much more.

The National Museum of Natural History, the narwhal exhibit’s original home in the Smithsonian Institute, shows a video explaining the Inuit tribes’ cultural legends and tales of the narwhal. Inuit tribes call it Qilalugag — “the one that points to the sky.” In old legends, a woman transformed into the creature after she was tied to a white whale and drowned in the ocean. All that remained of her was a long braid of hair, evolved into a twisted tusk.

“This has become my new favorite exhibit,” says Sarah Palmer, Life Science Museum employee and BYU anthropology student. “Especially because it links the narwhal to everyday human experiences.” She explains that understanding the narwhal’s significance in the lives of the Inuit, who used the sea creature for food and ivory, is integral to understanding its importance to the ocean’s ecosystem.

Palmer’s favorite piece of the exhibit is the colorful unicorn tapestry. In the Middle Ages, Scandinavian traders would sell “unicorn horn” narwhal tusks for medicinal purposes. As a result, the animal is culturally relevant to people around the world.

A traveling exhibit on narwhals from the Smithsonian Institution will come to BYU's Life Science Museum for the fall. (Courtesy BYU photo)

The exhibit features Dr. Martin Nweeia and his team’s research on the mammal. The iconic tusk, found on most males, is a porous, overgrown tooth, believed to be a mating advantage for the species. Some narwhals even have two of these “teeth.” Despite this, narwhals do not hunt with their horned tooth; rather, they opt to suck up fish and shrimp through their vacuum-like mouths. 

Palmer’s new favorite fact, courtesy of the exhibit, is that narwhal tusks are extremely flexible and can bend up to one foot in any direction.

Narwhals prefer the icy waters of the North, frequenting the Arctic Ocean bordering Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia. Unlike other whale species, narwhals do not migrate. Instead, they spend the winter months hidden beneath ice floes in the Arctic. During the summer season, they roam the ice-free waters closer to shores as they hunt for food.

In January, the traveling exhibit will leave Provo and move back to the Sam Noble Museum in Oklahoma. Don’t miss the chance to meet the mysterious unicorn of the Arctic.

A traveling exhibit on narwhals from the Smithsonian Institution will come to BYU's Life Science Museum for the fall. (Courtesy BYU photo)

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