/ ©: WWF / Paul Nicklen, National Geographic Stock

Narwhal

The narwhal (Monodon monoceros) is famous for the long ivory tusk which spirals counter-clockwise several feet forward from its head.
The tusk is actually the whale's upper left canine tooth. Male narwhals commonly have a single tusk though may also have two tusks or less commonly no tusk present.  Females often have no tusk though may present with one tusk and occasionally two tusks.

The tusk may play a role in male dominance and in addition, ongoing research by the WWF collaborators at Narwhal Tusk Research indicates that the tusk has sensory capability, with its millions of open sensory tubules.

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  • scientific name

    Monodon monoceros

  • adult weight

    males up to 1900 kg; females up to 1550 kg

  • adult length

    males up to 5.4 m; females up to 4.9 m, plus tusk up to 3 m

  • population

    Probably > 80,000 worldwide

  • status

    IUCN: Near Threatened. Canada: Special Concern

  • generation time

    Possibly 15 -20 years, with females maturing at 5-8 years, and males at 12-16 years.

Did you know?

  • Narwhals change colour with age. Newborns are mottled blue-grey, juveniles are completely blue-black, adults are mottled grey and old narwhals are nearly all white.
  • Occasionally, a narwhal will have 2 tusks.
  • The tusk isn't just a tooth, but probably a complex sensory organ, full of nerves.
  • Males are larger than the females.
  • Killer whales (orcas) feed on narwhals.

Why is the narwhal important?

Narwhals are hunted by some northern indigenous cultures. This subsistence hunt provides food and materials for traditional needs.
  • The skin of the narwhal, called "maktaq" by Canadian Inuit, is eaten both raw and boiled, and the meat is eaten by the people, or fed to sled dogs.
  • The tusk of the narwhal, made of ivory, is used for carving.Crafts made from this ivory are sold and can be an important source of income for Inuit artists.
Researchers are working with aboriginal groups to ensure that narwhal hunting is carried out in a sustainable way, so that populations remain stable.

What do narwhals eat?

A narwhal's diet includes
  • Greenland Halibut
  • Arctic and Polar Cod
  • Gonatus squid spp.
  • Shrimps
Narwals feed at the ice floe edge, and in the ice-free summer waters.

What is a narwhal's tusk for?

For centuries now, people have puzzled over the narwhal's unicorn-like tusk, and just what purpose it serves.
The work of Dr. Martin Nweeia and science and Inuit colleagues involved with the Narwhal Tusk Research project has unearthed important new evidence.

High-tech tooth

Based on knowledge gathered during interviews with Inuit elders and hunters in Western Greenland communities (Disko Island, Hunde Ejland, Saaqaq, Uummannaq, and Qaanaaq) and in Nunavut communities (Pangnirtung, Broughton Island, Repulse Bay, Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay), aerial surveys and satellite radio-telemetry, and some high-tech laboratory and field physiology tests, we know a lot more about narwhals than we used to. 

For example, it is now believed that tusk has significant sensory capabilities, with up to 10 million nerve endings inside.

The tusk may also serve some role in male dominance hierarchies, and Inuit observations reveal significant differences in morphology and behaviour of narwhals in different parts of their range.

Where do narwhals live?

Narwhals spend their lives entirely in Arctic waters of Canada, Greenland, Svalbard (Norway) and Russia.
Although accurate surveys are not available, experts believe that over 90% of the world’s narwhals are found in Baffin Bay (Western Greeland and Canada).  All of the 3-4 subpopulations move considerable distances from summering to wintering areas.

In Baffin Bay-Davis Strait, the bulk of the world’s narwhals winter for up to 5 months under what appears to be total sea ice cover. But there are clearly sufficient leads and cracks in the ice for adequate breathing between the deep dives the narwhals make, sometimes down to 2,300 m, where they are probably feeding mainly on Greenland Halibut.
 / ©: WWF
Map of narwhal range. Click to enlarge.
© WWF

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