Research Projects in Medical Sciences

Using Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, Traditional Knowledge, to Guide the Development of Hypothses on Narwhal Tusk Function

Faculty: Martin T. Nweeia, DMD, DDS
Funder(s): National Science Foundation

The narwhal remains one of the least-understood marine mammals on the planet, and its extraordinary tooth, a mystery. Mythical legends of the unicorn are only surpassed by the reality of an elusive whale that has challenged scientific minds for the past 500 years. Dr. Martin Nweeia combines an interdisciplinary team of scientists and Inuit elders and hunters to better understand the anatomy, behavior, and neurophysiology of nature’s most perplexing tooth.

The left canine of the male narwhal defies many principles and properties of tooth expression, from its architecture to its unique spiraled form. Why this tusk has become the exception to many of the evolutionary rules of teeth has been the subject of Dr. Nweeia’s 10-year investigation. Results from this study will uncover the knowledge recorded in the interviews of 55 hunters and elders from more than 12 communities in the High Arctic regions of Northeastern Baffin Island and Northwestern Greenland. These interviews will be translated and then integrated with scientific findings to bring a more complete understanding of the narwhal. By analyzing aspects of narwhal migration, distribution, behavior, anatomy, diet, and effects of global warming trends that are described in this collection of interviews, a more complete picture of this whale and its extraordinary tusk will be uncovered.

Dr. Nweeia’s research keeps children of all ages curious. Three television documentaries, 15 radio programs, and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles and Internet sites demonstrate the public appetite for knowledge about the narwhal, its tusk, and this ongoing study. Findings from this work will be published in a book that includes the findings of the Traditional Knowledge and the ongoing scientific studies. Original art and graphic plates describing narwhal anatomy, physiology, migration, and behavior will also be completed and incorporated in to the book, as well as Museum exhibits.