March 1, 2018

E3 – Chasing Narwhals, Unicorns of the Sea

Posted by Shane Hanlon

University of Washington biologist Kristin Laidre travels to the Arctic to study animals many of us have only seen in pictures. She has successfully tracked down the elusive narwhal and been up close and personal with a polar bear seeking to understand how the loss of sea ice and the effects of climate change are altering Arctic ecosystems.

In this episode, Kristin talks about what it is like to study these creatures, including the first time she saw a narwhal, what polar bear fur actually feels like and how climate change is impacting these animals.


Shane Hanlon, Third Pod fromthe Sun host: Alright Nanci, I thought we’d start off this episode with a bit of a quiz. Now, I’ve given you a word bank full of animal names. What do you think of when I say Trash Panda?

Nanci Bompey, Third Pod from the Sun host: Tra…Racoon! Is that correct?

Shane: Okay. That’s correct.

Shane: Yes! What about flying rats?

Nanci: Pigeons

Shane: Pantless thundergoose?

Nanci: [laughing]What? What? Kangaroo! Ohh..Thundergoose? Ostrich! Ostrich! Ostrich!

Shane: Told you this would be fun. Tyrannosaurus Deer

Nanci: Tyrannosaurus Deer? Kangaroo? Okay..

Shane: Yeah! Really thick legs, has its arms up.

Nanci: Okay…yeah sorta.

Shane: Albino danger floof

Nanci: Polar bear. What’s a danger floof?

Shane: Just like floofy. Like poofy, like look at ‘em. And there’re dangerous. What about Unicorn of the sea?

 Nanci: Narwhals!!!

Shane: Narwhals!!!

[intro music]

Shane: welcome to the American geophysical union’s podcast, about the scientists and methods behind the science. These are the stories you won’t read in the manuscript or hear in a lecture. I’m Shane Hanlon.

Nanci: And I’m Nanci Bompey.

Shane: And this is Third Pod from the Sun.

[music ends]

Shane: So, let’s talk narwhals, which is possibly the most fun thing I’ve said in a while. What do you know about narwhals

Nanci: Honestly, not much. I mean I know they’re these big kind of whales. They have this big horn thing. That’s about it.

Shane: Well, it turns out that scientists actually don’t know a ton about them either. And I mean they know more than you and I probably do but not as much as you’d think. But I think you found out a little more about this recently, right?

Nanci: Yeah, so I was at the Ocean Sciences Meeting in Portland, Oregon recently and I interviewed Kristin Laidre. She’s a biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle and she studies the ecology and the population dynamics of all sorts of arctic marine animals but that includes narwhals and polar bears and for narwhals in particular they really don’t know a lot about these animals so they’re just trying to figure out what they do and why they do it but she’s also looking at how climate change  is impacting narwhals, polar bears and all these other arctic marine mammals.

Shane: Cool, so let’s hear the interview.


Kristin Laidre: I didn’t really ever plan to study narwhals but I basically stumbled into a PhD project on them and so as a student, I spent a lot of time thinking about narwhals and writing papers about narwhals and that’s just continued for my whole career.

Nanci: When was the first time you heard of a narwhal or even it crossed your desk and … what did that feel … were you like, “Oh my God, I have to study these things,” or-

Kristin: I knew about narwhals. I was really into marine biology and especially whales when I was a kid. I had books on whales and I knew all the species and definitely was aware of narwhals and thought they were cool but I don’t think it ever crossed my mind that I would be studying them.

Yeah and studying them is really interesting because we don’t know a lot about narwhals, there’s a lot to learn. They’re really interesting, kind of weird whales. As a scientist, there’s so many questions you can ask and so many different directions you can go and that’s exciting.

Nanci: What is it like the first time going into the field and seeing a narwhal for the first time? Where was that, what happened, what was that like?

Kristin: Yeah, the first time I saw a narwhal, I was a PhD student and I distinctly remember the moment because it was actually so exciting and cool and it was in the Canadian arctic and I just kind of … we had landed in a where we were setting up a camp and I kind of walked up and over the top of this hill and down to the beach and then there were narwhals swimming right by in front of us. They’re not that impressive when you see them because you just see a little sliver of their back but just the idea of having a narwhal in front of you is pretty cool.

I think people are fascinated just by the idea of the unicorn of the sea. I get a lot of people that come to me after talks and say they didn’t think narwhals were real. They are a little bit magical and strange and it inspires a lot of imagination and fantasy and probably also because of the tusk on the males, which is like a unicorn horn, so that’s pretty cool.

Shane: UNICORNS OF THE SEA!!! But seriously, the horn, isn’t a horn, it’s a tooth. Did you know that?

Nanci: I don’t know I think I sort of read that somewhere, maybe that I knew that. But it really does look like a horn. And also, it’s made of ivory which is cool!

Shane: So besides looking majestic, what’s it for?

Kristin: We know the tusk is a sexual trait so only males have the tusks and it’s basically a symbol of hierarchy and dominance and males we think use it to size each other up and compete for access to females. We know the tusk is closely related to the size of the testes so it’s kind of an outward symbol of what a good mate you might be.

Nanci: Why don’t scientists know a lot about narwhals, why are they so elusive?

Kristin: Well, narwhals live in the high arctic. They live in really remote places, far from people. They live in places that are logistically really difficult to get to, really expensive to get to, not easy to spend time in because there’s no infrastructure and you need to live in camps, you need to take helicopters or planes.

Behaviorally, they’re really elusive, they’re really shy, skittish animals. They kind of flee quickly if there’s a sound that scares them. You can’t just drive a boat up to a narwhal or fly a helicopter over it. It’s impossible.

Shane: I was picturing a scientist heading out and lassoing a narwhal. I’m still on this unicorn kick. But I guess that’s not how it works. So, what, are we talking tags, transmitters? What’s going on?

Kristin: There’s different ways to study narwhals. One way is to go … summer narwhals migrate into pretty specific coastal areas and you can set up camps and live relatively close to narwhals and observe them from land. You can set out recorders and make recordings. You can sometimes set nets and catch narwhals and then you can put transmitters on them, which basically let you track the narwhals for up to a year. [Transmitter sounds]

Other ways to study them are from airplanes or helicopters. You can fly airplanes over the areas where they live and do transects and count them and figure out how many there are. [Helicopter propellers] You can take a helicopter out in springtime over the sea ice and you can land the helicopter on the ice in the habitats where narwhals spend their time in winter and if you wait long enough, narwhals will come back to the leads or the openings in the ice and then you can observe them and collect samples and things like that.

It varies, but it all involves a lot of logistics and a lot of patience and waiting.

[helicopter propellers fade out]

Shane: I mean, narwhals are so freakin’ cool. But they’re not exactly close by. So what’s it like for the researchers?

Nanci: Yeah, I asked about that. What’s it like, I mean just personally, being up away from your family, your friends out in the arctic, you know, doing this stuff for long periods of time?

Kristin: You get kind of used to it. It feels pretty natural to me to just disappear in the spring and be gone for four to six weeks. It’s peaceful. It’s a combination of being really stressful and then really peaceful. You’re in this beautiful, serene place and you have time to really kind of focus on one thing and not have a lot of distractions. Your phone’s not beeping and your emails and all these things at home that distract you. You’re just really focused and  that often gives you a lot of time to think about things and come up with ideas and process information. At the same time, you’re isolated and detached from everybody and you don’t have good communication, there are pros and cons.

There’s less than 60,000 people in all of Greenland. Communities are pretty small. Sometimes they’re 50 to 100 people and sometimes they’re a couple thousand people. They are native communities with indigenous people and subsistence hunting and really extremely interesting culture and many people who are experts on the ecosystem and all the animals because they live off the land and the sea. For me, it’s always a great privilege to work in those communities and talk to people and learn from them.

Shane: I love narwhals, obviously. But Kristin doesn’t just study narwhals, right?

Nanci: Right.

Kristin: Most recent trip was last spring, in Southeast Greenland, where we’re doing a polar bear study, catching polar bears in Southeast Greenland and tracking them. It’s a long way, you go for usually about a month or sometime six weeks and depending on the project,

Around Greenland, there are four subpopulations of polar bears and we’ve been working, kind of moving around the coast, working in different areas for several years now, doing broad studies, figuring out how many polar bears there are. What are the population trends, what’s the condition of the bears, how are they doing with the loss of sea ice. Have their movements changed, has their habitat use change, things like that.

Our most recent or current project is focused in East Greenland, which is a very big area, covers over 20 degrees of latitude and is taking us many years to kind of work our way through in studying the bears from the very southern tip all the way up to the norther part.

We study the bears in spring. We usually have a helicopter that we charter for about a month and we fly out over the sea ice and we can track the bears by looking at tracks and following them around or in some cases just spot them.

Then we have a drug that allows us to immobilize them. We fly down and shoot a dart into their rump and it immobilizes them briefly and we can land and then we can take samples from the bear and we can give it a mark, which is an identifying mark that basically allows us to kind of track the individual through time and then we can put a satellite collar on it that does pretty much the same thing the narwhal tags do, transmits to satellites and gives us the position of the bears for up to three years.

We catch bears that are all ages and sexes but the ones that we tag are the adult females and that’s because the adult males, if you put a collar on them, they can just push it right off because they’re a different shape, they kind of have a cone head and their shoulders are much bigger than their head and they can push, basically push the collar off onto the sea ice.

Nanci : So you do the females. Will the females then tell you about the population as a whole?

Kristin: Yeah, we use the females as a proxy for what we think polar bears and that population are doing. Of course, having data from males specifically would be better but to date, there really haven’t been options  collecting long term movement data from males because they’re really hard to tag.

Shane: Do you remember the quiz earlier? What I called polar bears?

Nanci:  Albino danger floofs…?

Shane: Yaaaaaas. They look so dangerously cuddly! I mean, I know they can be dangerous, but I actually have no idea about the texture of their fur.

Nanci: What does a polar bear feel like? What is the fur, is it soft? Do they smell? I don’t know. [laughing]

Kristin: I wouldn’t say they’re that soft. It’s probably more coarse. They don’t smell, they smell good. They actually hardly have a smell, surprisingly. It’s very warm, so we know when you’re out there and you’re often … your hands are freezing and you might be taking blood or something, you can dig your hands into the fur and they warm up in like one or two minutes.

Shane: Fortunately for me, most of my field experiences happened in the warm springs of Tennessee (though I did need to worry about drowning here and there). But seriously, besides having this awesome experience of working with freaking narwhals and polar bears, what is she actually trying to find out?

Kristin: The overarching theme of everything that I do is loss of sea ice and the arctic and climate change and a system that is changing really quickly into something that is very different from what conditions a lot of these animals are used to and experience, or have experienced in the past.

I’d say with the polar bears, I mean we see of course, they’re using poorer habitat, what we would call, worse ice conditions, or they have to spend more time on land, waiting for the sea ice to form. In some places, we see their body condition has declined, so they’re not as fat as they were historically.

With narwhals, narwhals are trickier. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the impacts of climate change on them. We’ve been looking at kind of probably more quantifying, what’s important to narwhals. What do narwhals need to be narwhals and as we go forward in time, once we have that baseline information, we’ll be better able to predict the impacts of climate change. It’s probably some really tricky things to quantify, like indirect effects in the ecosystem, where you lose ice and temperatures change and the prey for narwhals change is in all these things that aren’t that easy to get data on. We hope to have some answers.

It’s just a fascinating place that we should really do everything we can to protect and conserve. As an individual, it’s really a privilege and an honor to do my job and I feel excited to learn things and contribute information scientifically and then on a personal level, it’s just really special, life experience to be in that system and to be in those communities, yeah.

Shane: So, does this make you want to visit Greenland and search for sea unicorns?

Nanci: Well I mean it sounds so cool and it would be great to see one. But all that sitting around and waiting,and being quiet. I don’t know if that’s really for me.

Shane: I can’t really imagine you just sitting around and being quiet for extended period of time.

[music starts]

Shane: Alright folks, that’s all from Third Pod From The Sun.

Nanci: Special thanks to Caitlyn Camacho for editing this interview, and of course thanks to Kristin Laidre for sharing her work with the unicorns of the sea and the polar bears with us.

Shane: This podcast is also produced with help from Lauren Lipuma, Josh Speiser, Olivia Ambrogio, and Caitlyn Camacho. And thanks to Kayla Surry for producing this episode.

Nanci: The AGU would love to hear your thoughts. Please rate and review this podcast! And you can find new episodes in your favorite podcasting app or at

Shane: Thanks all, and we’ll see you next time.