Species: Monodon monoceros
Common Name: Narwhal
The narwhal is a medium-sized toothed whale and one of the two surviving whale species in the Monodontidae family (the other one being the beluga whale). They are best known for their long straight, helical tusk that male individuals have.
Narwhals can be mainly found in the Atlantic and Russian areas of the Arctic Ocean. The species is commonly recorded in the northern part of Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait, Baffin Bay; off the east coast of Greenland; and in a strip running east from the northern end of Greenland round to eastern Russia (170° East). Land in this strip includes Svalbard, Franz Joseph Land, and Severnaya Zemlya. Their northernmost sightings occur north of Franz Joseph Land, at about 85° North latitude.
Males have an average weight of 1,600 kg (3,500 pounds) while females have an average weight of 1,000 kg(2,200 pounds). Adult narwhals have a bluish-gray cylindrical body with white blotches. Their head is round with a small mouth on their blunt snout. The narwhal’s compact body shape, along with their thick layer of blubber helps them to retain heat in the icy Arctic waters in which they live. They have no dorsal fin, but they do have a ridge about 5 cm high that runs along the posterior end on the dorsal side that measures 60-90 cm long
Photo of male narwhal captured and satellite tagged.
Males attain sexual maturity after eight to nine years and females after four to seven. Their maximum life span is about 50 years.
Narwhals are best known for the 2-3 m (7-10 feet) long tusks that males have. These tusks have a weight of up to 10 kg (22 pounds) and are actually an incisor tooth which projects from the upper jaw's left side, forming a left-handed helix. The right incisor typically stays small, however about one in 500 males has two tusks. Females have a shorter and straighter tusk, with one recorded case with dual tasks.
The most prevalent theory regarding the tusks, is that they are a secondary sexual characteristic, like the mane of the lion and the tail of a peacock. This theory is further enhanced by the fact that males rarely use their tusks for fighting, as a defense against predators or for breaking the ice.
Video about Narwhals
Narwhals are specialized Arctic predators with a relatively restricted diet mainly consisting of:
- Gonatus squid
- Greenland halibut
- Polar and Arctic cod
- Skate eggs
Skull of a rare double tusk narwhal
Humans excluded, the only predators that narwhals have, are polar bears and orcas (killer whales).
Narwhals usually form groups of five to ten individuals and during the summer, many groups come together and form even larger aggregations. Male narwhals have been observed rubing their tusks (an activity known as tusking). It is believed that this activity is performed for maintaining social dominance hierarchies
Very little is actually known regarding their reproduction. This is because it is done in remote and hard to reach by humans areas. Mating occurs from March to May with the gestation period lasting for 10-16 months with new born calves being brown with no spots. They are 1.5 meter (5 feet) long and weigh 80 kg (175 pounds). They are weaned after 4 months after birth.
Narwhal conservation status and threats
Currently narwhals are listed by the IUCN as not threatened, with their total population estimated to be about 75,000 individuals. They have been traditionally hunted by Inuit people for more than a thousand years and this activity doesn't seem to threaten them. However they are believed to be particularly vulnerable to climate changes due to their narrow geographical range.
Narwhals in captivity
As of now, no narwhals are kept in captivity as they tend to die very quickly from unknown reasons.
Narwhal and the myth of unicorns
According to many the myth of unicorns may originate from this species. During medieval times many Europeans believed that narwhal tusks are actually unicorn horns. It wasn't until the Age of Exploration that their true origin begun to unfold as explorers and naturalists began to visit Arctic regions.
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