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Narwhal [1]

Size comparison with an average human
Size comparison with an average human
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Cetacea
Suborder: Odontoceti
Family: Monodontidae
Genus: Monodon
Species: M. monoceros
Binomial name
Monodon monoceros
Linnaeus, 1758
Narwhal range (in blue)
Narwhal range (in blue)

The narwhal (Monodon monoceros) is a medium-sized toothed whale that lives year-round in the Arctic. One of two species of whale in the Monodontidae family, along with the Beluga whale, the narwhal males are distinguished by a characteristic long, straight, helical tusk extending from their upper left jaw. Found primarily in Canadian Arctic and Greenlandic waters rarely south of 65°N latitude, the narwhal is a uniquely specialized Arctic predator. In the winter, it feeds on benthic prey, mostly flatfish, at depths of up to 1500 m under dense pack ice.[3] Harvested for thousands of years by Inuit people in Northern Canada and Greenland for meat and ivory, a regulated subsistence hunt continues to this day. While populations appear stable, the narwhal has been deemed particularly vulnerable to climate change due to a narrow geographical range and specialized diet.[4]


Taxonomy and etymology

The narwhal was one of the many species originally described by Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae.[5] This is based on the Old Norse word nár, meaning "corpse", in reference to the animal's greyish, mottled pigmentation, like that of a drowned sailor.[6] The scientific name, monodon monoceros, is derived from Greek: "one-tooth one-horn".[6]


A narwhal skull with 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)

Male narwhals weigh up to 1,600 kg (3,500 lb), and the females weigh around 1,000 kg (2,200 lb). The pigmentation of the narwhal is a mottled black and white pattern. They are darkest when born and become whiter in color with age.[6][7]

The most conspicuous characteristic of the male narwhal is its single 2-3 m (7-10 ft) long tusk. It is an incisor tooth that projects from the left side of the upper jaw and forms a left-handed helix. The tusk can be up to three meters (nearly 10 ft) long (compared with a body length of 4-6 m [13-16 ft]) and weigh up to 10 kg (22 lbs). About one in 500 males has two tusks, which occurs when the right incisor, normally small, also grows out. A female narwhal may also produce a tusk, but this occurs rarely, and there is a single recorded case of a female with dual tusks.[8]

The most broadly accepted theory for the role of the tusk is as a secondary sexual characteristic, similar to the mane of a lion or the tail feathers of a peacock.[6] This hypothesis was notably discussed and defended at length by Charles Darwin, in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). It may help determine social rank, maintain dominance hierarchies or help young males develop skills necessary for performance in adult sexual roles. Narwhals have rarely been observed using their tusk for fighting[9] or other aggressive behavior or for breaking sea ice in their Arctic habitat.[6]

Dentists in the USA proposed the tusk is actually a sense organ as they found over 10 million tiny nerve channels stretching from the core of the tusk to the outer surface. But the fact that only males possess the tusks suggests they are more probably related to courtship, social interaction and breeding than other, more general, sensory activities.[10]

Behavior and diet

Narwhals "tusking"

Narwhals have a relatively restricted and specialized diet. Their prey is predominantly composed of Greenland halibut, polar and Arctic cod, shrimp and Gonatus squid. Additional items found in stomachs have included wolffish, capelin, skate eggs and sometimes rocks, accidentally ingested when whales feed near the bottom. [11][12][3]

Narwhals exhibit seasonal migrations with high fidelity of return to preferred ice-free summering grounds, usually in shallow waters. In the winter, they are found primarily in offshore, deeper waters under thick pack ice, surfacing in narrow fissures in the sea ice, or leads.[12] Narwhals from Canada and West Greenland winter regularly in the pack ice of Davis Strait and Baffin Bay along the continental slope with less than 5% open water and high densities of Greenland halibut.[3] Feeding in the winter accounts for a much larger portion of narwhal energy intake than in the summer[3][12] and, as marine predators, they are unique in their successful exploitation of deep-water arctic ecosystems.

Most notable of their adaptations are the ability to perform deep dives. When on their wintering grounds, the narwhals make some of the deepest dives ever recorded for a marine mammal, diving to at least 800 meters (2,400 feet) over 15 times per day with many dives reaching 1,500 meters (4,500 feet). Dives to these depths last around 25 minutes, including the time spent at the bottom and the transit down and back from the surface. [13] In the shallower summering grounds, narwhals dive to depths between 30 and 300 meters (90-900 feet).

Narwhals normally congregate in groups of about five to ten individuals. In the summer, several groups come together forming larger aggregations. At times, male narwhals rub one another's tusks together in an activity called "tusking".[11] This behavior is thought to maintain social dominance hierarchies.[11]

Population and distribution

The frequent (solid) and rare (striped) occurrence of narwhal populations

The narwhal is found predominantly in the Atlantic and Russian areas of the Arctic. Individuals are commonly recorded in the northern part of Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait, Baffin Bay; off the east coast of Greenland; and in a strip running east from the northern end of Greenland round to eastern Russia (170° East). Land in this strip includes Svalbard, Franz Joseph Land, and Severnaya Zemlya. The northernmost sightings of narwhal have occurred north of Franz Joseph Land, at about 85° North latitude.

The world population is currently estimated to be around 75,000 individuals.[4] Most of the world's narwhals are concentrated in the fjords and inlets of Northern Canada and western Greenland.

Narwhals are a migratory species. In summer months they move closer to coasts, usually in pods of 10-100. As the winter freeze begins, they move away from shore, and reside in densely-packed ice, surviving in leads and small holes in the ice. As spring comes, these leads open up into channels and the narwhals return to the coastal bays.[4]

Predation and conservation

The only predators of narwhals besides man are polar bears and orcas. Inuit people are allowed to hunt this whale species legally for subsistence. The northern climate provides little nutrition in the form of vitamins which can only be obtained through the consumption of seal, whale, and walrus. Almost all parts of the narwhal, meat, skin, blubber and organs, are consumed. Mattak, the name for raw skin and blubber, is considered a delicacy, and the bones are used for tools and art.[6] In some places in Greenland such as Qaanaaq, traditional hunting methods are used, and whales are harpooned from handmade kayaks. In other parts of Greenland and Northern Canada, high-speed boats and hunting rifles are used.[6]

Narwhal have been found to be one of the most vulnerable arctic marine mammals to climate change. The study quantified the vulnerabilities of 11 year-round Arctic sea mammals.[4][14]

Attempts to keep the narwhal in captivity have been unsuccessful. All narwhals that have been brought into captivity in the past have only lived for a few months.

In culture

In Inuit legend, the narwhal's tusk was created when a woman with a harpoon rope tied around her waist was dragged into the ocean after the harpoon had struck a large narwhal. She was transformed into a narwhal herself, and her hair twisted around in the water until it became the characteristic spiral narwhal tusk. [15]

Image of narwhal from Brehms Tierleben

Some medieval Europeans believed narwhal tusks to be the horns from the legendary unicorn.[16] As these horns were considered to have magic powers, such as the ability to cure poison and melancholia[17], Vikings and other northern traders were able to sell them for many times their weight in gold. The tusks were used to make cups that were thought to negate any poison that may have been slipped into the drink. During the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth received a carved and bejeweled narwhal tusk for £10,000—the cost of a castle (approximately £1.5—2.5 Million in 2007, using the retail price index[18]). The tusks were staples of the cabinet of curiosities.

The truth of the tusk's origin developed gradually during the Age of Exploration, as explorers and naturalists began to visit Arctic regions themselves. In 1555, Olaus Magnus published a drawing of a fish-like creature with a horn on its forehead.

Herman Melville wrote a section on the narwhal in Moby Dick. In it, he claims that a narwhal tusk hung for "a long period" in Windsor Castle after Sir Martin Frobisher had given it to Queen Elizabeth.

In modern literature and film

The 1989 British film When the Whales Came is about a fictional British island that experiences an unusual event—the narwhals that seldom come near, beach themselves on the island [19]. It is based on the book (1985) Why the Whales Came by Michael Morpurgo.[20]

In the movie Benders Big Score, Fry develops a fond interest for a Narwhal by the name of Leelu[21].


  1. ^ Mead, James G. and Robert L. Brownell, Jr (November 16, 2005). Wilson, D. E., and Reeder, D. M. (eds). ed. Mammal Species of the World (3rd edition ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 723–743. ISBN 0-801-88221-4. 
  2. ^ Jefferson, T.A., Karczmarski, L., Laidre, K., O’Corry-Crowe, G., Reeves, R.R., Rojas-Bracho, L., Secchi, E.R., Slooten, E., Smith, B.D., Wang, J.Y. & Zhou, K. (2008). Monodon monoceros. 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN 2008. Retrieved on 18 December 2008.
  3. ^ a b c d K.L. Laidre , M.P. Heide-Jørgensen , O.A. Jørgensen , and M.A. Treble (2004). "Deep-ocean predation by a high Arctic cetacean". ICES J. Mar. Sci 61 (1): 430-440. 
  4. ^ a b c d Laidre, K. L., I. Stirling, L. Lowry, Ø. Wiig, M. P. Heide-Jørgensen, and S. Ferguson (2008). "Quantifying the sensitivity of arctic marine mammals to climate-induced habitat change". Ecological Applications 18(2): S97-S125.. 
  5. ^ (Latin) Linnaeus, C (1758). Systema naturae per regna tria naturae, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. Tomus I. Editio decima, reformata.. Holmiae. (Laurentii Salvii).. pp. 824. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Heide-Jørgensen, M. P. and K. L. Laidre (2006). Greenland’s Winter Whales: The beluga, the narwhal and the bowhead whale. Ilinniusiorfik Undervisningsmiddelforlag, Nuuk, Greenland. ISBN 978-87-7975-299-3.. 
  7. ^ "Monodon monoceros". Fisheries andAquaculture Department: Species Fact Sheets. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Retrieved on 2007-11-20. 
  8. ^ Carwardine, Mark (April 1995). DK Handbooks: Whales Dolphins and Porpoises. Dorling Kindersley. ISBN 1564586200. 
  9. ^ Silverman, H. B.; M. J. Dunbar (March 1980). "Aggressive tusk use by the narwhal (Monodon monoceros L.)". Nature 284: 56–57. doi:10.1038/284057a0. 
  10. ^ Piper, Ross (2007), Extraordinary Animals: An Encyclopedia of Curious and Unusual Animals, Greenwood Press.
  11. ^ a b c "The Biology and Ecology of Narwhals". National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Retrieved on 2009-01-15. 
  12. ^ a b c Laidre, K.L. and M. P. Heide-Jørgensen (2005). "Winter feeding intensity of narwhals". Marine Mammal Science 21 (1): 45-57. 
  13. ^ Laidre, K. L., M. P. Heide-Jørgensen, R. Dietz, R. C. Hobbs, and O. A. Jørgensen (2003). "Deep-diving by narwhals, Monodon monoceros: differences in foraging behavior between wintering areas?". Marine Ecology Progress Series 261: 269-281.. 
  14. ^ Borenstein, Seth (25 April 2008). "Narwhals more at risk to Arctic warming than polar bears". Yahoo! News (Associated Press).;_ylt=An7Bb5m_28.Qy3hAhn8aCx.s0NUE. Retrieved on 2008-04-27. 
  15. ^ Bastian, Dawn E; Judy K. Mitchell (2004). Handbook of Native American Mythology. ABC-CLIO. pp. 54-55. ISBN 1851095330, 9781851095339. 
  16. ^ Daston, Lorraine and Katharine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750. New York: Zone Books, 2001.
  17. ^ "The five most endangered whales." The Independent 20 Sept. 2008. Environment. 11 Feb. 2009 [1]
  18. ^ Purchasing Power of British Pounds from 1264 to 2007
  19. ^ When the Whales Came in the Internet Movie Database
  20. ^ Why the Whales Came by Michael Morpurgo, in Reading Matters
  21. ^ Leelu the Narwhal
General references

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