Professor Science: the magical, wondrous, mysterious unicorn

As a Professor of Scientific things, it is fascinating hearing you humans talk about unicorns. These are the mysterious and legendary creatures first described in ancient Greece around 350 BC and, although I am many moons old, I have never seen one myself! In fact, nobody ever has. However, there have been plenty of descriptions and drawings of these mighty beasts. Tales depict it as a goat-like, horse-sized animal with cloven hooves and sometimes a goat’s beard, and of course the single spiralling horn on its forehead. In olden day stories the unicorns’ horn in sometimes covered in glitter that sprinkles magic all over the world and lights up the sky.

For centuries people were (and still are) inspired by these ancient and even biblical stories and an obsession with the unicorn grew. Plenty of heroic knights in shining armour went on the hunt for this mystical creature with magical healing powers during the Middle Ages. However, their quests were fruitless as only a gentle and virgin maiden was thought to be able to tame this wild beast, the complete opposite of a heroic knight in shining armour – that is for sure! As a scientist myself, I find this whole unicorns malarky slightly humorous to conjure up in my head.

In later times adventurers and explorers still unable to catch a unicorn came back from their world travels with plenty of tales. Marco Polo is said to have described them as: “scarcely smaller than elephants… they have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead…they are very ugly brutes to look at.” It later became clear that he was talking about a rhino. Unfortunately, science at the time relied on the reports of these adventurers that searched far and wide for new things to discover. There were no cameras to take picture evidence and some of the colourful descriptions of wild beasts in faraway lands left a lot of room for interpretation. Science based on no evidence is no science at all!

Not surprisingly the obsession with finding a live specimen drove people to the brink of madness. Some constructed skeletons from various animals and sold them as unicorns. In 1985, the Ringling Brothers Circus went as far as manipulating baby goats’ horns to grow as one and presenting them as unicorns. As a fellow animal being, I sympathise with these poor goats! Others only ever sold the horns they had gathered on their trips to the Artic, and they were worth a fortune.

Extensive studies showed that these ‘unicorn horns’ are not really from a mythical creature, but in fact the tusks of real-life sea-unicorns, the male narwhals. The tusk grows from the canine tooth in left side of the upper jar. Although, not as magical as a unicorn horn, narwhal tusks do not give up their secrets easily either. Scientists are still debating what exactly it is for. Some suggestions include: ice breaker, swimming rudder, thermal regulator, environmental sensor, weapon, foraging tool, status and sex symbol.

If you believe you have stumbled across a unicorn, it might be an idea to tone down the alcohol intake.

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