The adult male narwhal is an absolutely unmistakable animal. With its long tusk, it is like no other marine mammal in its range or anywhere in the world. The tusk is actually one of two teeth in the upper jaw and only reaches full length (over 6 feet/2 m) in sexually mature males. It is used to attract females and to fight off other males. In males, the tusk begins to form when they are about one year old. Adult narwhals reach lengths (not including the tusk) of around 14-15 feet (4 m).
The narwhal is one of just two species in the “white whales” family, the other being the beluga. As they are closely related and do not have the characteristic tusk of the males, juvenile and female narwhals can be incorrectly identified as belugas. Narwhals typically have more dark coloration, however, than their solid white cousins.
Narwhals are restricted to the Arctic Ocean and adjacent waters, most significantly on the Atlantic side. They feed in deep waters near the ice edge, where they eat large fishes and squids that live on or near the bottom; scientists report that they prefer cods and flatfishes. Killer whales and polar bears have been known to attack and eat Narwhals, and at least one Greenland shark has been captured with narwhal remains in its stomach, but it remains unclear if it hunted or scavenged that meal. When hunting narwhals, polar bears use incredible strength to pull them onto the surface of the ice.
Conservation scientists consider the narwhal to be near threatened with extinction. Climate change is causing rapid changes to the Arctic ecosystem that affect narwhal habitat, and chemical pollution in the Arctic is particularly bad, risking the health of large predators like narwhals. These whales are hunted, legally, by the indigenous peoples of Greenland and northern Canada, but this ongoing hunt is not generally thought to threaten the species. Climate change is likely a more significant threat to narwhal populations, though further research is necessary before accurate predictions can be made.
1. Narwhals grow up to 18 feet (5.5 m) long and 3,530 pounds (1.6 metric tons).1
2. Narwhals are toothed whales but differ from other species in the toothed whale family because they have no teeth in their mouths.
3. Male narwhals have an ivory, spiralized tooth (often referred to as a “tusk”) that protrudes up to 9.8 feet (3 m) from their mouths.
4. Narwhal tusks are used to establish dominance among males in the pod.
5. Narwhals can dive more than 5,905 feet (1,800 m) deep, making them one of the deepest-diving marine mammals.
6. Narwhals live in remote Arctic waters that are frozen and void of sunlight for half the year.
7. The scientific name for narwhals, Monodon Monoceros, means “one tooth, one horn.”2
Oceana joined forces with Sailors for the Sea, an ocean conservation organization dedicated to educating and engaging the world’s boating community. Sailors for the Sea developed the KELP (Kids Environmental Lesson Plans) program to create the next generation of ocean stewards. Click here or below to download hands-on marine science activities for kids.