Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Case of the Vanishing Narwhal

In what sounds like an April Fools story, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) has appealed for the return of a narwhal corpse, which they believe may have been stranded on a North Clare beach in late March.

Narwhals (Monodon monoceros) are normally found in Arctic waters and, if confirmed, this will be the first recorded stranding of such a creature in Ireland. The thing is, it can't be confirmed, because the body of the dead cetacean has been removed in mysterious circumstances.

I can remember the first time I saw a Narwhal in either the Paris or Berlin Natural History Museum (I can't remember which) and being amazed that such a creature existed. For me, it falls into the same category as the duck-billed platypus, i.e. someone's having a laugh and clearly just stuck a fake tusk on a dolphin. But no, these creatures are perfectly real and their strange appearance has led to them being the source of some confusion over the centuries. Medieval Europeans, when presented with the excised tusks, believed them to be horns from the mythical unicorn. 

The IWDG say that Max Halliday spotted the stranded corpse near the Rock shop in Liscannor, Co. Clare (incidentally, that's the birthplace of one John Philip Holland, the Irishman who invented the submarine) on Sunday, March 25th. He reported the strange find to the IWDG on Monday 26th but the message wasn't picked up until Friday the 30th.

By the time IWDG and GMIT researchers were on site, the carcass was missing and all that remained was a grease stain and a lingering smell of rotting cetacean.

According to the IWDG, Max's description is as follows: "a cetacean that was larger than a dolphin at c15ft, with no dorsal fin, but most interestingly with a spiral tusk, about the length of a hurley, protruding from its head".

Liscannor, Co. Clare
Are there any photos? Unfortunately not. "I am absolutely mad that I didn’t take a photo. I am notorious for taking photos all the time, but for some unknown reason I didn’t take the photo. There were two women who were out on a walk at the time that I met than can corroborate what I saw" Max told the Irish Examiner.

Researchers were able to take small tissue samples from the site of the stranding which should be able to confirm if it was indeed a narwhal but they are keen to locate the corpse, not only to identify it, but to ensure it's preserved for posterity at the Natural History Museum.

"If we can prove this, then this is a very important finding, as this is a first for Ireland, bringing to 25 the number of cetacean species recorded in our waters", said Pádraig Whooley of the IWDG.

The group have appealed to people living in Co. Clare who may have seen the animal before it was removed to contact them with their observations and photos. They have also reminded those who removed the corpse that "all cetaceans in Irish waters, dead or alive, are fully protected by Irish law, and a special licence is required from NPWS for anyone in possession of such an animal or parts of".

"This is a potentially significant extralimital record of an Arctic vagrant, which to the best of our knowledge has never previously been recorded this far south."

"Clearly we are disappointed that thus far this animal has produced no photographic evidence which would be a far simpler way of confirming species ID, as male Narwhals are the only cetaceans that exhibit such a tusk, which is actually a protruding tooth on the upper jaw. So this is a public request for assistance and once again is not a 1st of April prank."

Update 05/04/2012: Clare County Council have said that they removed a carcass from Liscannor beach on the 27th March due to public health concerns and it is now destroyed. The contactors who carried out the removal did not report any tusk but that the corpse had already been significantly decomposed at that stage. Perhaps the eyewitness was mistaken is seeing a tusk? Perhaps the tusk was removed prior to the council moving the animal? Looks like this mystery will only be solved when the results of the genetic analysis are known. Stay tuned!

If you saw the creature and/or took photographs of same, you can contact the IWDG on

RTE News have reported on the mystery:


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