Which creature stays in the cold Arctic waters year-round, is nicknamed after a mythological creature, and has a distinct feature with an unknown purpose?
I have been fascinated by the Arctic ever since I was a young girl. Being from California, I don’t generally thrive in cold weather, but the creatures of Arctic lands and waters inspire me to make an exception. One of my best friends from college knew how much I love underrated wildlife and this freezing environment, so he got me a car keychain with a narwhal on it.
As it turns out, I’m not the only one left in awe by these iconic creatures.
The Unicorn’s Horn
The narwhal’s nickname is “unicorn of the sea,” but its ‘horn’ is not a horn at all – it’s an overgrown spiraled tooth! Usually only males develop these tusks, but at times females do too. The tusk can grow to 9 feet (3 meters) long and weigh more than 22 pounds (10 kilograms) – that’s one heavy tooth!
Tusks grow out of the narwhal’s upper lip, and they are covered in up to 10 million nerve endings and numerous tiny holes. The holes allow seawater to enter, and the nerves make these tusks sensitive to their surroundings. Any changes in the water, including temperature and saltiness, can be distinguished through these external nerves. This ability makes it easier for narwhals to find prey or detect incoming danger.
At first sight, these long teeth may seem like a burden. How does one navigate with a 3 meter long spiral sticking out of one’s face? Thankfully, narwhals already thought of that. Their tusks are extremely flexible, allowing these whales to be as agile as ever.
All narwhals are born with two teeth, with the male’s left front tooth being the prominent one. Females tend to lose both of their teeth as they get older. Since it’s more common for males to sport tusks, one theory is that they are used to impress females and demonstrate maturity. The longer the tusk, the older the male.
Narwhals have inspired countless myths regarding the purpose of their overgrown tooth, mostly because scientists still lack consensus on what it does. Some people believe it is meant for jousting, and although males do joust when in competition for a mate, these sensitive teeth are not built for battle. What may look like jousting may actually be two males cleaning each other’s teeth – quite the opposite of bad blood! Other researchers believe that tusks can be used to create paths in ice floes or to stun prey. Is it possible that these enigmatic, inside-out teeth do all the above?
Unlike other whales, narwhals don’t migrate. They stay in Arctic waters all year long, making it difficult for researchers to study them over long periods of time. Additionally, narwhals are timid creatures, so what we do know about them is still being verified.
We do know that narwhals, like other porpoises, enjoy traveling in pods, or groups. These pods consist of any number of individuals, from ten to a thousand. However large a pod is, they all consist of only one sex. Females and males travel separately, and only come together to search for a mate. For these cetaceans, bachelorette and bachelor parties last a lifetime.
Narwhals eat a variety of fast-moving fish and invertebrates including Arctic cod, Greenland halibut, shrimp, crab, and squid. To make feasting time efficient, and due to their lack of teeth, narwhals suck prey into their mouths and swallow them whole. However, like other behaviors of this obscure creature, this activity has yet to be documented.
Narwhals don’t generally get filmed underwater, but here’s a rare occurrence where you can hear them communicate through their distinct language: Here!
Ice Queens and Kings
Like other Arctic creatures, the lives of narwhals revolve around sea ice. Narwhals are slower-moving whales that find shelter amidst ice floes. In the open ocean, they are vulnerable to hungry orcas. A warming planet causes a reduction in Arctic sea ice, demonstrating an imminent threat to the narwhal’s survival.
A threat to narwhals is a threat to Indigenous communities, such as Inuit peoples, who rely on whale meat. It is also a threat to the overall balance in the Arctic ecosystem. As one of the top predators of this northern region, narwhals maintain prey populations. By addressing the negative impacts of offshore oil drilling, decreasing man-made noise in our oceans, and regulating the fishing industry, we can support initiatives that promote the preservation of this iconic, icy world.