Narwhal

Monodon monoceros
Other names: 
  • Sea unicorn
  • Unicorn whale
Maximum length: 
  • Male: 4.8m
  • Female: 4.2m
  • Calf: 1.6m
Maximum weight: 
  • Male: 1,600 kg's
  • Female: Unknown
  • Calf: Unknown
Diet: 
  • Large fish (turbot, cod etc.)
  • Squid
  • Shrimp
Estimated population: 
80,000
IUCN Listing: 
NT
CITES Appendix: 
II
CMS Appendix: 
II
Classification: 

Narwhals are distinguishable by the 2-3m long tusk that is found mostly on males. In Europe, these tusks were once sold as the horns of the mythical unicorn. Ongoing trade in their 'ivory' combined with other factors has led to regional declines over recent decades. In the summer months they are found to congregate in the hundreds and even thousands on rich feeding grounds, whilst during winter the majority of them disperse into smaller groups. The narwhal and the beluga together comprise the Monodontidae family.

Appearance: 

Like the beluga, the narwhal lives only in the most northerly climes. Physical characteristics include a bulbous forehead, no prominent beak, an arched mouthline, a dorsal ridge rather than a fin, and short blunt flippers with upcurled edges. The fluke has an oddly convex trailing edge which makes it appear as if it was put on backwards. All narwhals have two teeth embedded in the jaw. In males, the left one usually erupts to form a tusk. In some rare cases (1 in 500) both teeth grow to form tusks. In these cases, the right one is usually shorter. The tusks' function is much debated but it may be used in competition for females and can grow to 2-3m long and may weigh up to 10kg. The tusk is hollow and twists counterclockwise when viewed from the root. Adult males have ‘jousting' competitions, making distinctive ‘clacking' sounds. Many adult males have scars from these fights, and as many as 1/3 of males have broken tusks. It is thought that social status is linked to tusk length. Approximately 3% of females have a tusk, and there has only been 1 documented case of a female with two tusks. When born, calves are a blotchy grey, becoming mostly black by 1-2 years of age. Lighter patches appear as they age, and adults are creamy with black and grey splotches. Older individuals may appear mostly white. Only females and young animals are confused with young belugas in the wild.

Behaviour: 

During annual migrations, hundreds or even thousands may travel together, swimming fast and close to the surface. They can be found floating motionless at the surface with part of the tusk or flipper visible. Occasionally, all members of the group will leap out of the water and dive at the same time. Preferring deep or offshore waters, dive times of up to 25 minutes duration and to depths of 1500m have been recorded. Narwhals are known to 'suck' food into their mouths. They are fairly acrobatic, spyhopping and slapping flippers or tail against the surface of the water.

Distribution: 

Narwhals inhabit waters above the Arctic Circle, right up to the edge of the ice cap. The species is often found around pack ice. In the summer, narwhals migrate to cold, deep fjords and bays closer to land. Natural predators include polar bears, killer whales, and some sharks. Hunted by humans for centuries for their tusk ivory, their skin and blubber, called mattak, is still today sought after as a food source for native peoples in Canada and Greenland. Five distinct stocks are recognised and the species is listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN (2008). Threats to narwhals include targeted hunting, human disturbance, and chemical pollution. There is growing evidence that they are significantly threatened by climate change as a species that lives in the pack ice and which is adapted to certain conditions that are now rapidly changing.

Distribution map: