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Narwhal

by Avery Foley on May 15, 2017

Narwhals, the “unicorns of the sea,” are toothed whales found in Arctic waters. Their most recognizable feature is a long tusk. This “tusk” is actually a tooth that grows in a spiral pattern through a hole in their lip. It can grow over ten feet long in males! Female tusks are much smaller, and many females don’t even have a tusk. Narwhal tusks used to be sold for a small fortune as unicorn horns. No one is quite sure what the narwhal uses its tusk for, but it might be used to attract or fight for a mate.

Narwhals are usually found in groups, called pods, of 20–30 whales, but sometimes there can be hundreds or even thousands swimming together. During the summer they live near the coast, but when winter comes they hunt under and around the sea ice, breathing through cracks in the ice. They can dive over 5,000 feet.

Narwhal predators include polar bears, killer whales, humans, and maybe even walruses. Native peoples in the Arctic eat narwhal skin as a high source of vitamin C and feed the meat to their sled dogs.

Here are some fun facts about the narwhal:

  • Young narwhals are gray or black, but old ones are often white.
  • Scientists are learning more about narwhals by tracking them with satellites.
  • A narwhal’s tusk, which is made of ivory, has 10 million nerve endings inside and is the only straight tusk in the world.
  • Narwhals use echolocation to hunt.
Pod of Narwhals

By Dr. Kristin Laidre, Polar Science Center, UW NOAA/OAR/OER (NOAA Photolib Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A pod of narwhals off Greenland. Note the long single tusks on many of these small whales.

Did Narwhals Inspire Stories of Unicorns?

Some people believe narwhals inspired stories about the unicorn. But it’s much more likely that the historical unicorn (not the mythical creature we think of today) was a land animal, not a whale. Unicorn probably referred to an extinct species of rhinoceros.

Class: Mammalia
Order: Cetacea
Family: Monodontidae
Genus/Species: Monodon Monoceros
Size: 13–20 ft
Weight: 1.5 tons (3,000 lbs)
Diet: Fish, shrimp, and squid
Habitat: In the Arctic Ocean around the coast of Canada, Greenland, Norway, Alaska, and Russia
Life Span: 50 years
Special Design Feature: Thick blubber keeps narwhals warm, and the lack of a dorsal (back) fin allows them to swim under the ice.

Did You Know?

Some narwhals have two tusks.

Learn More

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