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All Creatures,

Episode 64: Narwhals, Unicorns of the Sea

December 18, 2018

Once thought to be a mythical creature, the Narwhal (Monodon monoceros), or unicorn of the sea, is a whale that lives on top of the world. These amazing ocean dwelling mammals are known for their single long tusk that lives around and often under the sea ice.

Narwhal Description

The word narwhal comes from the Norse word “nar,” which means “corpse-like,” because the pale color of the whales allegedly resembles the corpses of drowned sailors.

Narwhals live exclusively in the arctic and rarely are off the coasts but generally near the sea ice. They are found north of Canada, Greenland and Russia.

Narwhals belong to the Monodontidae family with Beluga whales. These whales are characteristic of having bulbous foreheads, short snouts, fins down their backs rather than dorsal fins, and of medium size for whales.

Narwhal Facts

The single long tusk is the major characteristic of Narwhals. However, the long tusks are usually only with males, with some females having shorter tusks. The tusk itself is an elongated canine tooth. There is still much debate on the role of the tusk, with it originally thought to be used to poke through the sea ice to create breathing holes. Other researchers note they may use it to stun fish, or even one study claims it is highly sensitive to temperature and salinity changes in the water.

Narwhals are carnivores that feed on halibut, cod, squid, shrimp and other deep-sea fish that are often very difficult to reach. Luckily, narwhals are one of the best divers in the world, with the ability to dive up to 1,500 meters deep and hold their breaths for as long as 25 minutes. They use a sucking motion to gather their food.

Other facts include:

  • Live around 20-35 years
  • Can be as long as 18 ft (5 m) and weigh up to 4200 lbs (1900 kg)
  • Pods can number 6 to 20 animals
  • Pods usually are of a single sex, male bachelor groups and female groups
  • Can be hunted by Killer Whales

Narwhal Conservation

Narwhals are least concern. Currently there are an estimated 123,000 worldwide. However, as climate change influences the poles these animals can easily slip towards extinction.

Conservation Tips

Reuse and recycle.  It has been estimated that 29% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions result from the “provision of goods,” which means the extraction of resources, manufacturing, transport, and final disposal of “goods” which include consumer products and packaging, building components, and passenger vehicles, but excluding food. By buying used products and reselling or recyling items you no longer use, you dramatically reduce your carbon emissions from the “provision of goods.

Organizations to Support

World Wildlife Fund Narwhal

American Cetacean Society

Peppermint Narwhal

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