Narwhal

Their large ivory tusk which is a protruding canine tooth of the male makes them The ‘unicorns of the sea’

The narwhal, often called the “unicorn of the sea,” is a captivating marine mammal known for its distinctive long tusk, which is an elongated upper left canine tooth. This remarkable feature projects from the left side of the male narwhal’s upper jaw spirals in a helical pattern and can extend as long as 9 feet (about 2.7 meters). The tusk’s presence primarily in males and its rarity in females have fueled much speculation and folklore throughout history.

The narwhal’s body displays a unique coloration pattern that changes with age. Newborns exhibit a blotchy gray pattern, which transitions into a mottled pattern with blackish-brown spots set against a white background as they age. Mature males can become almost entirely white, presenting a striking appearance that sets them apart in the icy waters of their Arctic habitat.

The function of the narwhal’s tusk has been the subject of much debate among scientists. Initially thought to serve as a weapon, newer research suggests multiple potential functions, including its use in intraspecific competition among males for mates, as an acoustic organ to enhance sensory perception, and possibly even to assist in breaking through the ice to create breathing holes. The tusk’s sensory capabilities are supported by findings that show it contains millions of nerve endings, making it a highly sensitive organ capable of detecting changes in the surrounding environment.

Narwhals have a specialized diet consisting primarily of Arctic cod, shrimp, and squid. They employ a suction technique to feed, drawing their prey into their mouths with a quick snap of the jaw. This method allows them to consume their food whole, an adaptation to the deep and cold waters they inhabit.

Despite their elusive nature, narwhals face significant threats from human activities, including hunting for their meat, skin, and valuable tusks, which are sought after for carvings and as trophies. Climate change also poses a substantial threat to their icy habitat, affecting the availability of their prey and increasing their vulnerability to predation and human interactions as Arctic ice diminishes.

Distribution

Country
Population est.
Status
Year
Comments
Arctic Ocean
2017
Atlantic Ocean
2017
Chukchi Sea
2017
Bering Sea
2017
Canada
2017
Seasonality Uncertain
Germany
2017
Seasonality Uncertain
Greenland
2017
Iceland
2017
Seasonality Uncertain
Netherlands
2017
Seasonality Uncertain
Norway
2017
Seasonality Uncertain
Russia
2017
Svalbard
2017
United Kingdom
2017
Seasonality Uncertain
United States
2017
Seasonality Uncertain

Did you know?

  • The only whales that have tusks, used to establish dominance in breeding season.
  • Rarely (1 in 500 approx), specimens are found with two tusks.
  • They have no dorsal fin.
  • Narwhals are hunted by orcas (killer whales) and polar bears.

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Terrestrial / Aquatic

Altricial / Precocial

Polygamous / Monogamous

Dimorphic (size) / Monomorphic

Active: Diurnal / Nocturnal

Social behavior: Solitary / Pack / Herd / Group

Diet: Carnivore / Herbivore / Omnivore / Piscivorous / Insectivore

Migratory: Yes / No

Domesticated: Yes / No

Dangerous: Yes / No