Species: M. monoceros
Range: Found year-round in the frigid Arctic waters of Russia, Norway, Greenland, and Canada
Population: Around 80,000 narwhals worldwide
How to spot them: Small, rounded head; no dorsal fin; males have one pointed spiraled tusk—up to 10 feet long; coloration changes as they age: newborns are blotchy blue-gray; juveniles, blue-black; adults, spotted gray; and old narwhals, nearly all white. Adults reach up to 20 feet long and 1.5 tons
IUCN Red List Status: Near Threatened: likely to become vulnerable in the near future
Like all iconic Arctic species, narwhals are incredibly connected to the ebb and flow of sea ice. They spend their entire lives among icebergs, migrating from the coast, where they find food along the ice edge in summer, to the deep offshore waters covered in pack ice in winter. Scientists guess they’re following their food—mainly Greenland halibut, but also cod, squid, and shrimp—that, as suction feeders, narwhals swallow whole.
In winter, up to 97% of their habitat’s open water is frozen over, and narwhals cluster around shifting cracks in the ice—called leads—that they use as breathing holes. Because there’s not much room to swim at the surface during the colder months, the whales hunt in the water column and on the sea floor, diving down to amazing depths up to 25 times a day. One of the deepest diving whales, narwhals have been recorded at 5,827 feet—more than a mile down. Special adaptations like compressible ribs and high blood oxygen levels help them withstand underwater pressure up to 150 times that on Earth’s surface! They spend a remarkable amount of time far below the surface and far offshore, making narwhal sightings extremely rare—for both expedition cruisers and scientists alike. There’s a long way to go before we truly understand this stealth, seldom-seen species.
Take their defining feature: their legendary tusk. Science still doesn’t know the evolutionary purpose of it—a way to impress females? a tool for punching holes in sea ice? But technology is helping to peel back some of the mystery. Recent drone footage suggests that one use for the tusks is to tap and stun fish, rather than spearing them as once thought.
Discover more facts about that tremendous tusk:
One Tusk, One Tooth
That tusk is actually an ivory canine tooth which grows right through their upper lip. Narwhals have just two teeth—in most males the left one erupts into a tusk with a left-handed spiral while the right tooth stays embedded in the gum (though there are rare cases of two-tusked narwhal). Females have these teeth too but theirs rarely ever erupt into tusks.
Narwhals are closely related to belugas, and on occasion, the species have crossbred. When scientists found a “narluga” in West Greenland, not only was its head much larger than either parent species, but its pearly whites also gave them pause: Instead of a single narwhal tusk or a set of 40 beluga-like chompers, this new whale had 18 teeth, each in the shape of a little spiral.
The legend of the unicorn likely started with the export of narwhal tusks from the Arctic. The remarkable “horns” made their way along trade routes through Europe, the Mediterranean, and even the Far East—along with myths of the fantastical creatures they came from. Believed to have magical powers, narwhal tusks sold for fortunes.
A surprising 2014 study revealed these tusks are soft on the outside and harder and denser on the inside—just the opposite of human teeth. Researchers discovered the tusk contains up to 10 million nerve endings which let the whales sense changes in the salinity of the water, possibly helping them locate food or mates.
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