Narwhals : The Unicorn of the Sea


Image via Wikipedia

I’ve always been fascinated by ocean life (as most people should be since there is so much left to discover). One interesting mammal that makes its home in the water is the Narwhal (“corpse whale” in Old Norse). This “unicorn of the sea” is a rarely seen habitant of the arctic waters. This being the case, not much is known of its behavior.

via Wikipedia - "This narwhal skull has double tusks, a rare trait in narwhals. Usually, males have a single long tusk protruding from the incisor on the left side of the upper jaw. (Zoologisches Museum in Hamburg)"


– Scientific Classification –

These pale porpoises (named for their coloration), are a member of the Odontoceti suborder which houses toothed whales. Their skin coloration is mottled white and black spots that fade as they age (Source #3). The large tusk (on both genders), that one might think of as a horn, is actually the left tooth of the animal that may grow to be almost 10 ft long. Considering that Narwhals can grow to be 13-20 ft long just in body length, the tusk can be a rather large in relation to body size. The purpose of the tusk is not clearly defined. It may be used in mating rituals, battling rivals, social rank or other reasons. Thus far, it has not been determined to be an aid in hunting. The tusks grow out in a spiral and are hollow inside. About one in 500 males can grow a second tusk when their right tooth grows as the left one does (shown to the left). The female’s tusk will be shorted and straighter than the male’s. While females can grow a second tuck, there is only one recorded case of it happening (Source #3).

“Narwhals are related to bottlenose dolphins, belugas, harbor porpoises, and orcas. Like some other porpoises, they travel in groups and feed on fish, shrimp, squid, and other aquatic fare” (Source #1). They are a social mammal and can be seen in groups of 15-20 but generally stay in the 2-10 range. Their lifespan is projected to be about 50 years. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Narwhals are near threatened. They may fall prey to orcas and other whales, polar bears, or walruses, and are hunted by Inuits (the skin is a source of vitamin C but most parts of the animal are consumed).

Gestation period for the Narwhal is 10-16 months. Calves are about 5 ft long at birth and can weigh 175-220 lbs (Source #1). Should they fall into one of the threatened categories, the long wait in the reproductive cycle may cause an issue in conservation efforts. The current world population is an estimated 75,000 (Source #3).



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