Updated on 9/29/12
Rather than pursuing a childhood dream of being an orchestra conductor, Martin Nweeia chose to be a dentist and marine mammal biologist instead. With help from a National Geographic grant, he sought to uncover the secrets behind the extraordinary tusk of a whale—the narwhal—that resembles the horn of a unicorn. In 2000, Nweeia and a team of scientists discovered that the tusk can bend one foot in any direction and that its nerve system could detect temperature, pressure, motion, and more. “I love when life points you in directions that you resist,” Nweeia explains. “It’s too easy when things make sense, and life hums along. There was nothing about the narwhal that made any sense to me.”
What project are you working on now?
The narwhal tusk has fascinated and baffled scientists for hundreds of years. I am involved with discovering its functional significance.
Why do narwhals have these strange tusks?
We believe it’s a sensory organ capable of detecting variables of pressure, temperature and particle gradients. Since the tusk is associated primarily with males, it likely has an importance for males in detecting females, perhaps the waters where females in estrus are located or another variable they can sense. As with many sensory organs, there may be multiple functions for the tusk, so other theories may prove true though are not believed to be primary. It is compelling that the narwhal has taken the evolutionary path of silencing eight pairs of teeth in its embryological development and stimulating one pair in such a dramatic, and uncharacteristic way. Narwhal eat large fish and yet have no teeth in their mouth to chew or bite; they swallow them whole. They have taken all of their tooth producing potential and invested in this large single pair of teeth. Normally the right tusk remains embedded in the upper jaw, but occasionally is expressed with the left tusk as a double-tusked narwhal. Females may also express a tusk though not as prevalent as males. Learn more about the narwhal here!
What’s the biggest surprise you’ve discovered in your field of work?
The biggest insights come from the smallest voices. Though we have uncovered some remarkable scientific discoveries in our research, many of the most profound insights came from Inuit hunters and elders who held mind treasures that directed the science and have additional knowledge that is capable of unlocking ongoing scientific questions.
Have you ever been lost? How did you find your way back?
It’s a long story, but I was involved with the search for a college girlfriend who was on the missing persons list in Colombia, and I had gotten lost in the process. From Bogotá to Santa Marta, and eventually a tribal separation with the Kogi Indians living in the High Sierras, the odyssey took my mind in so many directions, that when I finally returned home, I couldn’t leave my room for nearly a month. It was both brain- and heart-wrenching.
What one item do you always have with you?
Until about five years ago I would have answered swim shorts. Now it would be my iPhone.
If you could trade places with one explorer at National Geographic, who would it be and why?
I admire Bob Ballard; he’s the real deal. While others were and are more concerned with exploitation, he has held true to valuing treasures of the sea that belong to us all. His dedication in reaching out to children is a testament to a belief that we only learn lessons valuable for a sustainable Earth when we are willing to give them to another generation.
What do you think National Geographic explorers will be exploring in a hundred years?
Many of the same frontiers will still be explored on a deeper level, since the why of many of the known observations has only been scratched at the surface of understanding.
God, and the spiritual mind, I hope, will be the central frontier. Science and religion need to find mutual pathways to meaning. It’s not about creation versus evolution, it’s about the cosmological question of the ages, “Why is there anything at all?” The findings of science only remind us more of the wonder, and symphony of light, shape, and sound that we call Earth.
What is your favorite National Geographic article?
“Keepers of the World,” October 2004, about the Kogi Indians. My experience with this tribe 20 years before this article was written proved to be life changing.
What is your favorite food?
This is the most enjoyable question because I love everything about food, and I love those who create and celebrate its blended desires. I recall being in a remote island of Micronesia, and someone coming to me after three weeks saying, “You are really liked here by everyone.” When I asked why, they responded, “You are the first person to eat all of our foods.” It’s a wide range for me having tried reindeer heart, raw seal, a wide array of bugs, spiders, and slithering reptiles and amphibians.
Favorite course would definitely be dessert. My second life would be a pastry chef. I can get into serious trouble around butter, cream, and chocolate. I’m smiling just writing this.
What are you reading?
Quiet by Susan Cain. The subtitle is a good synopsis: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.
What are you listening to?
Silence. While everyone is tuning in, ears plugged, video connected, and wired to every outlet, I’m most content with nothing. Really. Natural sound does it for me; I really don’t need a bed-track or a music score. If I am on a long driving trip alone, most of the trip would be in silence.
If you were to meet your eight-year-old self, what would you say?
Don’t ever be afraid to be yourself. Each of us holds a key to unlock a treasure in life. You do not need to find the key or the treasure; just learn to love and the treasure will appear and the key will be in your hand.
If you won the lottery, what would you buy? Where would you travel?
There is no doubt that most of the money would be given away to others, and my attention would be drawn to restoring religious values in daily lives. The how, what, where, and when would require some thought. The why is simple; it’s what calls.
If you were a baseball player and came up to bat, what song would be played?
U2’s “It’s a Beautiful Day”
See U2 perform “Beautiful Day”:
Do you have a hidden talent?
Composing music, playing piano, and singing. I’ve composed for PBS documentaries, and large music benefit projects supporting causes such as the homeless and families of Gulf War soldiers. Two of my recordings were added to the Hawaii Historical Collection.
If you were to bring back one species of animal that has gone extinct, what would it be?
We haven’t found it yet, but when uncovered I would like to bring back the evolutionary link between narwhal and their artiodactyl predecessors. Odobenocetops peruvianus, a tusked cetacean that likely had visible sensory connections from their teeth to their ocean environment, would be my selection from known animals.