Tag Archive | narwhals

Amazing Marine Mammals: Narwhal


The narwhal has longed been linked with the mythical unicorn for centuries due to it’s long spiral tusks. (Photo is public domain).

The narwhal (Monodon monoceros) is regarded as one of most complelling animals of arctic because of the remoteness and harshness of their frozen envrionment as well as their unsual apperance. For centuries, they have long been linked with mythical unicorns because of the fact that adult males have long spiral tusks that were unlike any other animal in nature that have ever existed. In fact, during the Middle Ages, traders and chemists alike have long been said to have conspired to cover up the existence of the arctic whale in order to sell the tusks off as “unicorn horns” for profit. Today, this marine mammal is no longer linked to mythical horned horse and has no become the subject of many field studies that aim at understanding the lives of narwhals year round.

Narwhals have short rounded heads with no beaks while their melons being bluff, protuding foward of the small upturned mouth. (Artwork by Science Photo Library).

Being one of two members of the Monodontidae family which the beluga whale is also part of, narwhals looks a little bit like belugas except, they are a little bit different from them. For example, adult narwhals have strongly conevexed flukes that are similar to that of butterfly wings while their small flippers short and broad. However, what makes narawhals very unique as a species of whale is the fact that they are the only cetacean species on Earth to lack functional teeth inside their jaws. In addition, starting at three years of age, male narwhals begin to develop their tusks which can grow up to 9 feet long and weight up to 22 pounds. Females on the other hand, remain tuskless for life. Unlike beluga whales which are completely white at adulthood, adult animals are always spotted with a black and white dorsal coloration although calves are born completely grey. Anyway, males can grow up to 15 feet long and weight in at 3.500 pounds while females weight in at around 14 feet long and weight in at 2,200 pounds. The ancesctors of modern day mondotiades, which includes both the narwhal and beluga first appeared in the fossil record around 3-5 million years ago though little is known about the evolution of this species of whale.

Narwhals are only found exclusively in the Arctic.

Narwhals have a dicontinuous distribution within the high Arctic region. However, they are commonly found in deep waters that branch northward from the North Atlantic basin which includes northwestern Hudson Bay, the Hudson Strait, Foxe Basin, Davis Strait, Baffin Bay, and Lancaster Sound. However, they often found in the Greenland Sea in which a population in that area has been known to mirgrate to the northern Barents Sea. Yet, their migrations are turned to the formation and movement of sea ice because as the ice breaks apart in the spring, hundreds of narwhals follow receding edges of pack ice and use the small cracks and melt holes to penetrate deep sounds and fjords right away. There, they will reside there throughout the summer and early fall while heading to offshore areas during the winter months.

Narwhals are the only know cetacean species to have no functional teeth in the jaw area. (Photo is public domain).

Narwhals are deep divers. They feed in in entire water columns, taking pelagic fish, squid, shrimp, and bottom-dwelling fish. On average, dives can last up to 20 minutes and they have been known to reach depth of more than 3,300 feet below the surface of the ocean. Researchers believe that narwhales suck their prey into their mouths and swallow it whole. They do not use their tusk as a spear weapon.

While narwhals live close-knit groups of up to 20 animals, they are seem to be more scattered and solitary. (Photo by National Geographic).

During the summer months, narwhals form large aggregations that consist of hundreds of animals although they may consist of much smaller close-knit groups of a few animals that number around no more than twenty individuals. These pods are usually homogeneous and consit of either animals of the same gender (like pods that are made of females with calves or breeding males), or of a single age class. In the winter however, these pods get scattered and result in solitary animals, perhaps it could be because of owing to the patchiness of cracks and holes in the ice. Adult males are known to fight one another due to the strong evidence of scars and wounds in the head region. Such fighting among the males could play a role in establishing dominance and breeding opportunities. Despite the fact that narwhals have been known to cross tusks above the surface, there’s no evidence to prove that that they fence with them.

At birth, narwhal calves are grey, just like beluga whales. (Photo by superstock.com)

Narwhals sexually mature at around four to seven years of age while they mate during the winter and early spring months when they become inaccessible for observation by researchers. With a gestation period of about fifteen months, the grey calves are born being around 5.3 feet long and weighting in are no more than 176 pounds. Births occur during  the summer months and will be weaned off at around a year old. Calves will normally still with their mothers for about three years and if they survive into adulthood, they may around 25-50 years.

For centuries, the Inuits of the Canadian Arctic have been known to have hunted the narwhal for food, oil and ivory. (Photo is public domain).

Although narwhals are not endangered, they have been threatned by centuries of commercial whaling which was for their meat, oil, and tusks, all of which have been subjected to forgein trade even though hunting them was only on a casual basis. When laws were established to have such trades banned, it also stated that only the Inuit tribes can sustainably hunt them for traditonal pruposes while only using arrows instead of commerical weapons. Surveys done on narwhals estimate that there are about 50,000 animals roaming the Arctic Ocean although some populations are being threatned by climate change and interbreeding with beluga whales.