Dubbed the “unicorn of the sea” because of the long tusk that protrudes from their head, the narwhal is a type of whale who lives in cold Arctic waters. Here are some interesting facts and frequently asked questions about these rare marine mammals:
1. Are narwhals real?
The short answer is: Yes! Because narwhals are extremely rare, and undoubtedly due to their comparison with unicorns, many people wonder if narwhals are mythical animals. They are, in fact, real. Though, sailors of old had a different idea of what they actually looked like, just as they did dolphins and manatees.
Here’s a 16th century illustration of a narwhal. (They don’t actually look like this.)
2. What is a narwhal?
Narwhals (Monodon monoceros), sometimes referred to as “narwhales,” are a species of whale. They’re in the same family as beluga whales, which is Monodontidae.
Here’s a short video from Netflix that’s narrated by Sir David Attenborough, so you can get a view narwhals in the wild:
3. Is a narwhal a whale?
Yes, narwhals are small toothed whales.
4. Are narwhals extinct?
Narwhals are not extinct. However, their population number is unclear. Different sources say their population ranges from 10,000 to 120,000 individuals. Clearly, more conclusive research needs to be done. With marine mammals around the world facing a variety of threats, conservationists and marine mammal experts agree that we need to better monitor narwhal populations more, so we can understand the impact of the threats they face.
The main reason we know so little about narwhals is that they are incredibly difficult to study. For one, they live in a very cold remote location. And two, they are extremely fast swimmers. Furthermore, they don’t do well in captivity, which makes it more challenging to study them.
Threats to Narwhals
Some of the threats that narwhals face include hunting, climate change, and oil and gas development in Artic waters. Oil and gas development brings more ships to the area, which can collide with narwhals and disrupt their sonar and other communication signals with each other. To make matters worse, the melting of polar ice due to climate change is making it easier for ships to enter areas where they have previously never gone, further disrupting narwhal habitat.
Warming ocean temperatures from climate change are having another impact. Orcas, who are narwhals’ natural predators, are moving farther into narwhals’ northern territories.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act
Narwhals are protected under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The MMPA focuses on ensuring that marine mammal species populations remain vital in the ecosystems of which they are a part.
However, a study conducted by Cambridge University found that international agreements to protect narwhals and other species are falling short of protecting them.
5. Where do narwhals live?
Narwhal habitat includes the cold Artic waters around Canada, Norway, Greenland, and Russia.
Because narwhals live in such cold waters, their bodies are 50 percent fat. By comparison, other whales have about 25 percent body fat.
6. What do narwhals eat?
Narwhals primarily feed under the ice in deep Arctic waters, so researchers have never seen them actively hunting prey. However, scientists have been able to study the contents of narwhal stomachs when they are hunted by local Inuit and other Indigenous Peoples.
Narwhals have a somewhat limited diet. They prey mainly on Greenland halibut. However, they are also known to eat polar and Arctic cod, shrimp, gonatus squid, wolffish, capelin, and skate eggs.
Narwhals barely eat during the summer months and then gorge on fish in the wintertime.
7. How deep do narwhals dive?
One of the reasons narwhals are so difficult to study is that they are incredibly fast swimmers and they’re known to be deep divers. Marine biologists who have successfully tagged them discovered that they will dive as far as 5,900 feet (1,800), -or over one mile. Like blobfish who have adapted to withstand the pressure of being under so much water, narwhals have collapsible rib cages that adjust to water pressure.
8. How big are narwhals?
Narwhals are about 17 feet (5 meters) long. The females weigh around 2,000 pounds (907 kg) and males can weigh up to 3,500 pounds (1,588 kg). The male narwhal’s tusk ranges from about 5 to 10 feet long (1.5 to 3 meters).
9. How big are narwhal babies?
Narwhal babies, called calves, are born large and plump so they can survive in cold, Arctic waters. When they’re infants, they are already about 1/3 the size of their mothers, or about 4 feet (1.2 meters) long and weighing over 600 pounds (272 kg).
10. Do narwhals have predators?
Narwhals do have predators. One of them is human beings. They are an important source of food for local Indigenous Peoples, such as the Inuit. Indigenous People also use the ivory from their tusks to make tools.
There is no reason that other people should hunt them, and local governments have put quotas on the number of narwhals who can be hunted.
Narwhals’ natural predators are mainly orcas. However, orcas mainly prey on them in summer months and are mostly absent from narwhals’ winter habitats. (Though, as mentioned earlier, warming ocean waters are causing orcas to hunt narwhals further north.)
Polar bears have also been known to hunt narwhals. They will wait on the ice for the narwhal to surface for air, then they will jump on the narwhal’s back. The polar bears will even go so far as to cover the narwhal’s blow hole to suffocate them.
In addition, Indigenous hunters have noted that Greenland sharks will try to feed on narwhals when they are hunting them.
11. Are narwhals dangerous?
Narwhals are quite the opposite of dangerous to human beings. They are actually known to be extremely skittish and shy around humans.
12. How long do narwhals live?
Narwhals can live for 50 years. Researchers can estimate their ages because they change color over time. When they’re young, they have bluish gray spots. In adolescence, their spots change to bluish black. As they age, their spots become more gray and then eventually white when they’re old.
The narwhal’s tusk is worthy of its own section, as it’s what makes these marine mammals truly unique and “the Unicorns of the Sea.”
13. What is sticking out of the narwhal’s head?
The narwhal’s tusk (sometimes called a horn) is actually a super long canine tooth that grows out of the top of his head. Mostly male narwhals have these long tusks, though about 3 percent of females have them too.
The narwhal’s Latin name, Monodon monoceros, translates to “one tooth, one horn” in English.
Like an elephant’s tusks, the narwhal’s tusk is made of ivory. As mentioned earlier, it can range in size from 5 to 10 feet long (1.5 to 3 meters).
Here’s a great video from National Geographic that gives you an up-close view of the narwhal’s tusk:
14. Why does the narwhal have a tusk?
Just as a wolf uses their fangs for hunting, eating, and fighting, the narwhal’s tusk serves a few purposes. However, unlike the wolf, they do not use them to fight. They do, however, use their tusk in hunting to stun their prey.
There’s an additional purpose for their tusk, and it’s the same reason why a reindeer or other moose has antlers. Antlers and tusks are showstoppers in a sense: They’re used to show off and demonstrate masculinity. But while reindeer and other bucks will use their antlers in fighting, the narwhal’s tusk is rather sensitive, so it’s not used in narwhal battles.
Instead, researchers have discovered, the narwhal’s sensitive tusk is used to detect stimuli in their environment. For example, they can detect water temperatures and changes in salinity, so they can sense when water is going to freeze. Like other marine mammals, narwhals breathe oxygen, so they need to be able to surface to breathe. Thus, it’s essential they don’t get caught for extended periods under ice.
15. Why are narwhals hunted for their tusks?
The allure of narwhal tusks dates back centuries. As far back as the 5th century, narwhal tusks were sold in Europe and Asia and marketed as unicorn horns. Naturally, the unicorn horn was said to have magical properties, including improving male virility. So, unfortunately, narwhal were and are still hunted for the same reason that rhinoceroses are: quack science marketed to uneducated people.
Today, narwhal tusks can be sold on the black market for thousands of dollars. While it’s still legal to hunt them in Canada, it is illegal to bring their parts into the United States.
In fact, in 2014, a years-long joint investigation conducted by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Law Enforcement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Environment Canada culminated in busting a narwhal tusk smuggling ring. The criminals had imported over 400 narwhal tusks over a seven-year period.
How You Can Help Narwhals
If you are interested in narwhals, please do you what you can to protect them and help fund more research about them. Here are some organizations that are doing so: