Narwhal

The narwhal is famous for the long ivory tusk which spirals counter-clockwise several feet forward from its upper lip. The tusk is actually the whale’s upper left canine tooth. Male narwhals commonly have a single tusk, but they sometimes have two tusks, or none at all. Around 15% of females have a tusk.

A pod of male narwhal (Monodon monoceros) surfacing for air through seal holes and rotten ice while searching for cod in Nunavut, Canada.

Narwhal facts

Scientific name
Monodon monoceros

Adult weight
males up to 1900 kg; females up to 1550 kg

Adult length
males up to 5.4 m; females up to 4.9 m, plus tusk up to 3 m

Population
> 120,000 mature individuals

IUCN Red List status
Least Concern

What is a narwhal’s tusk for?

For centuries now, people have puzzled over the narwhal’s unicorn-like tusk, and just what purpose it serves.

Sensing
The work of Dr. Martin Nweeia and science and Inuit colleagues involved with the Narwhal Tusk Research project has unearthed evidence that the tusk has sensory capabilities.

Stunning
Using drone photography, filmmaker Adam Ravetch captured a surprising behaviour for the first time. In this amazing video, a male narwhal appears to use his tusk to hit and stun fish.

Threats to narwhals

Climate change
Thousands of years of evolution have prepared Arctic species like the polar bear, walrus and narwhal for life on and around the sea ice. Because of climate change, that ice cover has been changing rapidly, in both extent and thickness, and shrinking far too quickly for these species to adapt. A narwhal’s entire life is connected to sea ice, both as a place to feed and a place to take refuge. Slow swimming whales rely on sea ice as a place to hide from predators like killer whales.

Oil and gas development
Vessels that support oil and gas development mean increased shipping in sensitive areas. Increased shipping means more noise that can mask communications for many Arctic marine species and it increases the potential for collisions with marine mammals, especially whales. It also brings more pollution and a greater possibility of oil or fuel spills.

Ocean noise
Shipping, industrial extraction, marine construction and military activities cause underwater noise pollution. Since whales depend on sound to communicate, any interference by noise pollution can negatively affect their ability to find food and mates, navigate, avoid predators and take care of their young.

More on narwhal and other Arctic whales

Read the latest news, features, and reports.

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From our magazine, The Circle

Stories about narwhal and other Arctic whales.