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Narwhal Facts

  • The narwhal is an elusive whale, medium in size, and inhabits the Arctic and Atlantic oceans in Canada.
  • The narwhal is also called the unicorn of the sea due to the male narwhale, which has a single long sword-like spiral tusk that protrudes from the front.
  • Narwhals have a life span of up to 90 years. 
  • They are two primary colors; light grey and white.
  • Narwhals weigh between 1,760-3,539 pounds. 
  • Narwhal diets include flatfish, cuttlefish, halibut, cod, shrimp, and squid. 
  • These sea mammals’ main predators include polar bears, sharks, walruses, killer whales, and humans.
  • They swim at a top speed of 4 kph, a distance of 1 meter per second.
  • Want to know why narwhals have a horn. Find out in a guide I have written. You can read it here.
  • Narwhals have a tusk made of ivory and are classed as a tooth.  This spirals out of the upper left side of the jaw and passes through their lip. This tusk can extend up to 10 feet or 3 meters long and weigh approximately 22 pounds or 10 kg.
  • Narwhals are members of the order Artiodactyla and the family Monodontidae.  This family also includes the unusual dorsal fin-lacking, the pure white beluga whale.
  • They are warm-blooded mammals and breathe air, holding their breath while underwater. 
  • Without the male spiral tusk, narwhal averages between 13 to 18 feet or 4 to 5.5 meters in length. 
  • Most of the year, narwhals live in the cracks of dense pack ice in the Canadian Arctic. 
  • These mammals do have a migration pattern.  However, they don’t leave the Arctic waters. Their migration occurs annually from the high Arctic summering grounds in coastal bays of west Canada to offshore wintering grounds in deeper waters. They do this to remain close to accessible food sources and avoid being trapped by fast ice. 
  • Narwhals exhibit small rounded heads with no dorsal fin.  They have an uneven dorsal ridge along the spine and short flippers with upturned tips.
  • It is easy to distinguish between a male and a female narwhal as the male narwhals have long, straight helical tusk while the female has a much smaller tusk. 
  • There have been several male narwhals observed with two tusks.
  • A narwhal’s body is covered with a black and white mottled skin pattern on the dorsal fin while the belly is white. 
  • Narwhals’ color changes as they grow.  When they are born, they are gray, and as they age, they turn black and white. The oldest narwhals have white skin and few black spots.
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  • Narwhals travel in groups, as do most other whales. They assemble with up to 5 or 10 other whales and travel together at different times up to 20.
  • When summer arrives, narwhals form huge groups.  These formations can range between 500 and 1000 strong. 
  • During winter, narwhals make some of the deepest dives recorded for a marine mammal. They can dive at least 800 meters, up to 15 daily. Many dive, reaching 1,500 meters, with dives lasting 25 minutes.  This includes the time spent at the bottom and the transit down and back to the surface.
  • The sounds they produce differ in summer and winter. They use clicks or echolocation to detect objects in the water for navigation and communication. 
  • Tusks in narwhals are packed with nerves and covered in tiny holes that allow seawater to enter.  This enables the tusk to exhibit sensitivity, which can help narwhals detect changes in their environment like temperature or water saltiness.
  • Narwhals attain their sexual maturity between 6-9 years.
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  • Female narwhals give birth to a calf every third year on average. Their breeding season is spring (March-April) in the dense ice of their wintering grounds.
  • The narwhal gestation period ranges up to 14 months, and they give birth in late spring (May-June) when they are northbound, migrating to their summering grounds.
  • The calves depend on their mother to feed them milk for 20 months. As a result of this long lactation period, calves can learn the skills vital for survival after they mature.  The young will stay within two body lengths of the mother.
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  • Narwhals are prone to suffocation when the sea ice freezes over and are hunted at this time.
  • Inuit people are permitted to hunt narwhals legally. They have harvested this mammal for their meat and the ivory from the tusk.
  • Most narwhals die due to starvation.
  • Under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), narwhals are nearing threatened mammals’ qualification.  They are currently listed as the least concern, but because their population is decreasing, their population is around 75,000.
  • Jules Verne wrote about Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea; narwhals were said to be among the giant sea phenomena. 
  • Narwhal skin is rich in vitamin C.  This is the primary source of vitamin C for Inuit people of the Arctic.
  • There are no narwhals currently in captivity as they don’t thrive in captivity.  Several attempts to keep these sea mammals turned unsuccessful, all dying within several months.
  • When a narwhal squeals or whistles, it is so loud it can make a human being turn deaf. 
  • For 101 facts on blue whales, click here.
Cross-section of narwhal tusk
Cross-section of narwhal tusk
  • Narwhals swim with their belly facing up and lay motionless for several minutes.  This has earned them the nickname “corpse whale.”
  • Narwhals do sleep, but they are conscious breathers.  This means they have to remember to breathe while asleep.
  • Narwhals eat around 66 pounds or 30 kilograms per day.
  • Narwhals have Blubber, which is 40% of their body. This blubber assists them in keeping warm.  The fat also acts like a wetsuit, which provides buoyancy. 
  • Narwhals are not aggressive to human beings unless provoked.
  • The binomial name for the narwhal is Monodon monoceros, which translates to “ one tooth, one horn.”
  • The word narwhal is old Norse which also means “corpse whale”
  • A narwhal is related to dolphins, orcas, belugas, and porpoises.
  • A narwhal horn is made of ivory, but narwhals use it as a tooth. 
  • For 101 facts on polar bears, click here.
  • The narwhal tusk is used for hunting fish as they hit the fish with it but do not spear it.  This makes it easier to catch and eat.
  • Male narwhals use their tusk to establish their social status, showing their dominance over other males and competing for mating females.
  • Narwhals don’t have teeth to eat what they hunt, but they swim towards their prey and suck them in with force into their mouths. 
  • Narwhals require open water areas to live in to be able to breathe. These open areas typically have a high concentration of halibut for easy feeding. 
  • Narwhals have evolved to withstand high water pressure.  They exhibit compressible rib cages that can be squeezed without harming when swimming at enormous depths. 
  • Narwhals have twice the concentration of oxygen-binding myoglobin in their muscles as a seal.  This allows them to swim at 1 meter per second underwater for up to 25 minutes without needing to breathe.
  • It is challenging for humans to see these sea mammals as they live so far north, in the ocean’s most remote and coldest part. 
  • A narwhal is 50% full of fat due to the environments they live in.
  • Narwhals are prone to ice entrapment.  They have to leave their summer grounds before autumn.  As a result of sudden weather changes, they can become trapped by ice.  One of the recorded largest entrapments of narwhals occurred in 1915 when over 1000 narwhals were trapped under the ice in Greenland.
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  • In history, Queen Elizabeth 1 is said to have spent 10,000 pounds on narwhals’ tusks, equal to 2 million pounds at today’s dates.  The tusks were placed within the crown jewels.
  • The primary threat to narwhals is climate change. The rapid changes in weather and seasonal ice expansion cause entrapment, which endangers their survival.
  • Collectors highly prize narwhal tusk, and their value can be up to 15,000 dollars per tusk. 
  • The legalization of tusk sales began in 2009 when seven tusks were put into an auction in “The Gentleman’s sale” at Bonham’s.  This legality was soon rebuked with the help of the whale and dolphin conservation society. 
  • Female narwhals give birth every three years, and their pregnancy lasts 14 months.
  • The male and female narwhals are born with two small teeth embedded in their skulls but only in males does the front left tooth to grow into the spiral tusk they are famous for.
  • It is estimated that in every 500 narwhals, only 1 has two tusks.
  • The word narwhal originates from the Icelandic word “nar,” which means “corpse,” referencing its pale white color and hvalr, meaning whale.
  • The reference to narwhal as a unicorn differs on who and when they are asked.   Narwhal’s horns were sold as unicorn’s horns at a price ten times as high as gold.
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  • Narwhals have been used as pictures on various products and packaging.
  • The narwhal is among the two living species of whale in the family Monodontidae. The other is the beluga whale.
  • The narwhal is one of the many species originally described by Linnaeus in his Systema Nature.
  • The narwhal has mottled pattern pigmentation with blackish-brown markings over a white background.
  • The narwhals are born dark but become white as they age, with patches developing on the navel and genital slit when they reach sexual maturity.
  • The oldest male narwhal is almost pure white as they change color with age.
  • Narwhals do not have a dorsal fin. This may be from an evolutionary adaptation so they can swim easily under the ice.
  • The narwhal is a vertebrate. They are jointed like land mammals rather than fused, as in most whales.
  • The female narwhals have their tail fluke and have front edges that are swept back. Males have their front edges, which are more concave and lack a sweep back.
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  • The narwhal and the beluga comprise the only existing members of the family Monodontidae. These are also referred to as white whales.
  • The tusk found in male narwhals is an innervated sensory organ with millions of nerve endings connecting seawater stimuli in the external ocean environment with the brain.
  • The rubbing of tusks together by male narwhals is said to communicate information about features of the water each has traveled through.
  • A drone video of narwhals surface-feeding in Tremblay Sound, Nunavut, showed that the tusk was used to tap and stun small Arctic cod, making them easier to catch.
  • Several vestigial teeth surround the narwhal tusk posteriorly, ventrally, and laterally.
  • The narwhal teeth sometimes extrude from the tusk, although they reside in open tooth sockets in the narwhal’s snout.
  • The anatomy of the small teeth indicates a path of evolution that may leave the narwhal toothless.
  • Narwhals can survive in a depth of up to 1,500 meters below sea level.
  • Narwhals are concentrated in the fjords and inlets of North Canada.
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  • The bull narwhal can rub its tusk with another bull to display a habit called tusking. It can also use this to maintain social dominance.
  • The narwhals have a special diet composed of Greenland halibut, polar and Arctic cod, cuttlefish, shrimp, and squid.
  • The female narwhals start bearing calves at the age of six to eight years old.
  • The newborn calves begin their lives with a thin layer of fat, which thickens as they nurse their mother’s milk, rich in fat. Calves are dependent on their mother’s milk for 20 months.
  • The narwhal’s mortality mainly occurs due to suffocation after the narwhals fail to leave before the Arctic waters’ surface freezes over in late autumn.
  • In literature, the narwhals are one of the two explanations for the giant sea phenomenon in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
  • In Inuit legend, it is said that the narwhal tusk was created when a woman with a harpoon rope tied around her waist was dragged into the ocean. This was after the harpoon had struck a large narwhal. She transformed into a narwhal, and her hair, which she wore in a twisted knot, became the characteristic spiral narwhal tusk.
  • The narwhal is among the most vulnerable Arctic marine mammals due to climate change. This is a result of the sea ice coverage in their environment.
  • Narwhals, during their growth, accumulate metals in their internal organs. One study showed that many metals are low in concentration in the fat of narwhals and high in the liver and kidney.
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  • The narwhals are mentioned mainly in the Lore of the Unicorn. Throughout the book by Odell Shepard, he describes the earlier interpretations of the narwhals as being a fish with a horn on its forehead to a sea unicorn.
  • Narwhal tusks in Canada are sold with or without carving, and an average of one or two vertebrae and one or two teeth per narwhal are carved and sold.
narwhal
  • During winter, the narwhals make the deepest dives compared to other parts of the year. They can dive up to 800 meters.
  • The narwhals whistle, but it is rare to hear the sound they produce compared to a beluga whale, which also whistles.
  • Some of the sounds produced by the narwhals include trumpeting, squeaking, and whistling.
  • Humans use narwhals to provide skin for commercial selling, carve vertebrae, teeth, and tusk, and eat their meat.
  • In Canada, it is estimated that over 600 narwhals are killed daily. Canadian harvests were steady in the 1970s, dropping to 300-400 per year in the late 1980s and 1990s. The number has risen again since 1990.
  • Narwhals are hard to keep in captivity and cannot be kept in large pools or other environments except the sea.
  • The European Union established an import ban on narwhal tusks in 2004. This was, however, lifted in 2010. The United States has forbidden imports of tusks since 1972 under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
  • Hunting still threatens their existence despite the laws in place.
  • Narwhals can provide another source of income, such as from narwhal watching trips.