Monodontidae – Narwhal & beluga

The fantastical family of two: meet the white whales and unicorns of the Arctic sea

Male narwhals are particularly famous for their single, spiraled tusk, which is actually an elongated upper left canine tooth projecting from their upper jaw and piercing through their lip. This tusk, which can grow up to 2.5 meters (9 feet) in length, has intrigued scientists and laypeople alike for centuries. Unlike any other mammalian structure, the narwhal’s tusk is filled with millions of nerve endings, making it an incredibly sensitive organ capable of detecting changes in the environment. Research suggests it could be used in sensing salinity gradients, temperature, and pressure, helping narwhals navigate the icy waters they call home. Additionally, the tusk serves a social function, playing a role in male dominance displays and possibly in attracting mates.

Beluga whales, on the other hand, are known for their striking white coloration as adults, which serves as camouflage against the Arctic ice. These social cetaceans live in closely knit pods and are famous for their diverse vocalizations, earning them the nickname “canaries of the sea.” Beluga whales use a wide range of clicks, whistles, and clangs to communicate with each other, navigate, and locate prey in the murky waters of their habitat. During the summer, belugas are known to congregate in the hundreds in estuaries and shallow coastal areas, where they socialize, molt their skin, and give birth.

Both narwhals and beluga whales are highly adapted to life in the freezing conditions of the Arctic. They lack a dorsal fin, which minimizes heat loss and allows them to swim under ice with ease. Their bodies are insulated by a thick layer of blubber that also serves as an energy reserve during the long winter months when food can be scarce.