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Video Reveals Clue to World's Most Mysterious Whales

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Footage captured by aerial drones as part of a narwhal research camp in Tremblay Sound, Nunavut, is giving biologists new insights into the behavior of one of the world's most mysterious whales.


Narwhals have a long tusk, which is actually a canine tooth that spirals counterclockwise up to nine feet forward from the head of adult males, and a small percentage of females. In the footage, a narwhal can be seen using quick taps of its tusk to stun Arctic cod, rendering them immobile and thus easier to capture and eat.

The footage is significant, both for partially unravelling the mystery of the narwhal tusk and because it shows that narwhals feed on their summering grounds. This helps researchers determine which areas are key narwhal habitat, and need to be considered for protection as the range of the narwhal faces increasing pressure from industrial development.

The behavior was captured by two drones belonging to documentary filmmaker Adam Ravetch and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which was leading the narwhal research camp.

What we know (and don't know) about narwhal:

• The volume of research is very small compared to other whales, because narwhals live in remote locations that are difficult to access.

• Scientists know even less about the evolution of the narwhal tusk, which is actually a tooth, though it likely serves more than one purpose. Over the years, theories have included that it is an ice pick, a weapon to win a mate and a tool for echolocation.

• Recent research suggests that the tusk has thousands of nerve endings, as well as pores that allow narwhals to sense the environment around them.

• Every summer, the nutrient-rich waters of Canada's Lancaster Sound host more than 80,000 narwhals, three quarters of the world's population.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada, with support from WWF-Canada, the Vancouver Aquarium, and the Pond Inlet Hunters and Trappers Organization, will continue research this year on narwhal behavior and movements in the Eclipse Sound. Additional research through WWF-Canada's Arctic Species Conservation Fund will seek to identify important narwhal calf rearing habitat in the region.

"This footage, while also stunning to watch, will play a significant role in the future of narwhal conservation," David Miller, president and CEO for WWF-Canada, said.

"As the Arctic warms and development pressure increases, it will be important to understand how narwhal are using their habitat during their annual migration. With this information in hand, we can work to minimize the effects of human activities on narwhal," Miller continued.

"More research needs to be conducted to determine how they behave across their range, including the identification of calving and rearing areas. WWF-Canada is looking forward to partnering with Fisheries and Oceans Canada again this year on narwhal research in order to further our understanding of these mysterious animals."

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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