When escaping from humans, narwhals don’t just freeze or flee. They do both.
These deep-diving marine mammals have similar physiological responses to those of an animal frozen in fear: Their heart rate, breathing and metabolism slow, mimicking a “deer in the headlights” reaction. But narwhals (Monodon monoceros) take this freeze response to extremes. The animals decrease their heart rate to as slow as three beats per minute for more than 10 minutes, while pumping their tails as much as 25 strokes per minute during an escape dive, an international team of researchers reports in the Dec. 8 Science.
“That was astounding to us because there are other marine mammals that can have heart rates that low but not typically for that long a period of time, and especially not while they’re swimming as hard as they can,” says Terrie Williams, a biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. So far, this costly escape has been observed only after a prolonged interaction with humans.
Usually, narwhals will escape natural predators such as killer whales by stealthily slipping under ice sheets or huddling in spots too shallow for their pursuers, Williams says. But interactions with humans — something that will happen increasingly as melting sea ice opens up the Arctic — may be changing that calculus.
Monitoring a female narwhal showed that her heart rate dropped precipitously low at times as she performed a series of dives after escaping a net (top graph). The red box shows periods of “cardiac freeze,” when her heart only beat a few times per minute. About two days later, the same narwhal was back to performing regular deep dives (bottom graph), in which her heart rate dropped to 10 to 20 beats per minute, an adaption…
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