Fishin' for Facts: Narwhals

Common name: Narwhal

Scientific name: Monodon monceros


Males: 16.4 ft (5 m) and weigh up to 4000 lb (1,800 kg)

Females: 13.1 ft (4 m) and weigh up to 2205 lb (l,000 kg)

Calf: A newborn narwhal is about 5 feet (1.5 meters) long and can weigh 175 to 220 lbs (79 to 100 kilograms)

Where are they found:

Narwhal live in the Canadian High Arctic and West and East Greenland.  They are the only whales that winter in the Arctic.

What do they eat:

Greenland halibut, Polar and Arctic cod, shrimp and squid.  Scientists believe they have a limited or restricted diet because they only eat a few kinds of animals.

What eats them:

Indigenous people of the Arctic.  It has been a major source of food for thousands of years.



How deep can they dive:

Narwhals hunt for food as deep as 4921 ft (1500 m) down. Can stay underwater 25 minutes!

A narwhal can live as long as 90 years!  Narwhals spend most of their time offshore away from humans. 

Due to threats such as hunting, climate change and increased human traffic drilling for oil the IUCN lists narwhals as “near threatened.”


Narwhal's scientific name,  “Monodon monceros” is taken from Greek words for “one tooth or one horn.” 

A beautiful and aloof creature, the narwhal is also fascinating whale.  It’s the only toothed whale that has no visible teeth in its mouth.  Instead, males have a long spiral tusk that grows out of its upper left jaw.  The tusk can be 6 to 9.8 ft long!  That’s as long as two 10 year old kids! Though rare, some female grow tusks, too. Also rare, but true, some males grow two tusks!  

The tusk isn’t used to hunt, stir drinks or hit a ball.  Scientists believe the purpose of the tusk is to establish social ranking.  In other words, which whale is the top dude among the male narwhals. They don’t fight or spar, just show off their awesome tusk to others (usually during mating season).

Thousands of years ago, the myth of unicorns grew when sailors purchased the tusks and had no description of what animal it came from. 

Deep-sea divas! Many people don't realize that narwhals are deep-sea whales. During certain times of the year, the narwhal is a deep diver.  How deep?  A narwhal can dive over a mile!  It can stay underwater for up to 25 minutes.  It hunts and eats at the bottom of the ocean.  A narwhal might spend up to 3 hours a day diving.  Because they dive so deep, no one has witnessed them hunting or eating.   

Like other marine mammals, the reason narwhals can dive can dive so deep and stay under water sol long is because of special adaptations.  They shunt their blood.  That means, when they dive, their body “shuts off” blood flow, so it only goes with the most essential organs – the heart, lungs and brain.  Like other marine mammals, they also have a high concentration of oxygen (stored in myoglobin) in their muscles.  The muscles use the stored oxygen while the whale is on a dive.  Plus, a narwhal's streamlined body-shape makes diving to the bottom easier.   

The narwhal travels in different size pods.  A smaller pod may have 2 or 3 whales. Huge pods may have hundreds of whales.  The pods can be all male, all female, or a mix of both. 

Narwhals have a 14 month gestation period. Females giving birth in the spring.  The calf is born gray and develops its spots as it ages.  As you might guess, it is born without a tusk. 

Photos courtesy of NOAA OE.


Citation: Mann, Lynda. Narwhals. Fishin' for Facts. WhaleTimes, Inc. ( 2012 

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