Our enchantment with this whimsical creature may stem back to a love for the mythical unicorn. The narwhal’s long spiral horn is precisely what many picture sprouting from a unicorn’s head. These beautiful marine mammals captivate our imaginations, but we still have much more to learn about them! Read on to learn about the narwhal.
Description of the Narwhal
Narwhals are light-colored marine mammals, dappled with numerous dark spots across their skin. They have a torpedo-shaped body, which is more hydrodynamic, allowing them to move through the water more swiftly. Male narwhals have a long “horn” growing through their upper lip, this is actually a tusk, which can be up to 10 feet long! Females can also grow tusks, albeit shorter than the males.
Interesting Facts About the Narwhal
These creatures look interesting before we even learn anything about them. With spotted skin and a long, elegant horn, they are the epitome of intrigue. However, these beautiful marine mammals are more than just a pretty sight to behold.
- The “Horn” Isn’t a Horn at All! – True horns are made of keratin with a bony center, but a narwhal’s horn is actually a modified tooth. This makes the “horn” a tusk! The tusk is a canine tooth that juts straight through the upper lip.
- The Cost of Sound – Narwhals, along with many other marine mammal species, communicate and navigate using sound. Unfortunately, the more ships and aquatic equipment there are in the ocean, the more sound there is as well. This increase in sound can interfere with marine mammals’ ability to hear one another, and to navigate using echolocation.
- Graying with Age – The color of a narwhal’s skin changes as it gets older. The babies start out a blue/gray color, and become darker as they reach sexual maturity. Adults are covered heavily with dark spots, and become whiter and whiter the older they get. The elderly are almost entirely white.
- Synchronized Swimming – Groups of narwhals travel and feed together. Pods are frequently between 15-20 animals, but gatherings of hundreds of individuals have been spotted. Some sightings of several thousand animals have even been reported!
Habitat of the Narwhal
Narwhals are found exclusively in Arctic seas. They hunt and live in these nutrient-rich, cold waters year round.
Distribution of the Narwhal
These marine mammals are found mainly in the Arctic Ocean – near Canada, Russia, Greenland, and Norway. During the winter, the vast majority of the narwhal population migrates to the Baffin-Bay Davis Straight. The animals breathe through cracks in the sea ice in this area until summer, when they migrate to shallow coastal waters.
Diet of the Narwhal
Narwhal feed primarily on Greenland halibut, Arctic cod, cuttlefish, Polar cod, squid, and shrimp. Scientists believe that they feed by using strong suction to force prey into their mouths. These animals only have two canine teeth, one of which is a tusk, so it is unlikely they can capture prey in any other way.
Narwhal Tusk Purpose
Until recently, the purpose of a narwhal’s tusk had been shrouded in mystery. Many scientists hypothesized its possible uses, but there simply hadn’t been enough research done to make a strong conclusion. New studies and video footage have given scientists a better understanding of the function of the tusks.
Research has shown that these elusive marine animals can detect chemical changes in the water around them using their tusks. Because the tusk is a tooth, it contains very sensitive nerve endings. These nerve endings have the ability to detect changes in the chemical composition of the water, including salt concentrations. They have also been seen using their tusks to “smack” fish, effectively stunning them. It is apparent that a narwhal’s tusk serves multiple functions to the animal.
Narwhal and Human Interaction
Narwhals were hunted by humans during the whaling era, and were especially prized for their long tusk. These marine mammals are still legally harvested by Inuit tribes, which use all parts of the animal for sustenance. Narwhal skin is one of the few sources of vitamin C available to Inuit people.
Narwhals have not been domesticated in any way, nor have they been kept successfully in zoos or aquariums.
Does the Narwhal Make a Good Pet
These animals would not make good pets. They are notoriously difficult to care for in even a zoological setting.
Because narwhals have never successfully been kept in a zoological setting, it is unknown what steps would be necessary to properly care for one. It can be assumed that regulating water temperature and a very specific diet would be necessary.
Behavior of the Narwhal
Narwhals travel in groups of anywhere from 10-20 individuals. These groups can vary in their social structure, from solely females and young, to adolescent males and “bulls.” These adult male bulls will frequently use their tusks to determine social status.
Reproduction of the Narwhal
Narwhals breed during the spring, and have a gestation period of 14 months. The baby, called a calf, will nurse from its mother for 20 months. Calves generally stay within two body lengths of their mothers, and not straying from her side.
Beliefs, Superstitions, and Phobias About the Narwhal
According to Inuit legend, the creature’s tusk was created by the demise of a female hunter. The hunter wore her hair in a long braid, and was pulled into the ocean by a harpooned narwhal. Legend has it that the woman turned into a narwhal, and her long, twisted, braid become the animal’s classic tusk.