Narwhals: The Unicorn of the Sea

Why does so much mystery surround the narwhal and its tusk?

Nicknamed “unicorn of the sea,” male narwhals possess a peculiar nine-foot-long tusk. Protruding out of the left side of its face, the tusk is made of ivory, a commodity once traded across the globe. Today, it is illegal in much of the world to sell ivory. The tusk and its uses are the subject of story and mysticism alike.

Inuit legend explains the unusual appendage with a tale of a troubled mother being dragged into the sea and her hair spinning into the lance. In the middle ages, narwhal tusks were often passed off for those from the mythological unicorn. Some surmise it’s for elaborate ornamentation denoting social rank or sexual attractiveness. The exact use of the tusk still remains uncertain.

One of the reasons why narwhals have eluded scientists for such a long period of time is the location of their habitat. Narwhals cruise in the frigid, northern waters of the Arctic and Subarctic regions. For the record, narwhals do not live in the Antarctic part of the planet. Due to their difficult to reach habitat, the expense to study these animals is immense.

Scientists are slowly learning more about these mysterious creatures. Diving far below the water’s surface, narwhals feed on squid, shrimp, octopus, arctic cod and Greenland turbot. Adult males weigh an average of 3,500 pounds while females check in at around 2,000 pounds. Swimming in pods, which can sometimes swell to the hundreds, Narwhals communicate with a series of squeaks and squeals. Other statistics, such as how long they live and how many exist in the world, are still vague estimates at best.

The association with the unicorn actually dates back hundreds of years. Hunters used to sell narwhal tusks to the kings of Medieval Europe, who believed those who possessed the stunning tusk would possess magical power. The exact purpose of the tusk still remains unclear to scientists; although some now theorize it functions much like a lion’s mane which is for ornamentation.

Another unusual observed behavior of the narwhal is that it spends a great deal of time swimming upside-down. Scientists have place geotracking tags on narwhals and observe that they can swim to the ocean floor in a corkscrewing motion and will flip over to swim on its other side.

The only major threat to narwhals is, well, us humans. By overharvesting their main food source, turbot, we threaten their range. On rare occasions, narwhals can become trapped in closing sea ice, fall victim to polar bears or become dinner for killer whales. However, these few incidences do not have a big enough impact to threaten the species as a whole.

The warming of the planet is currently shrinking narwhal habitat and may eventually drive the animal into extinction. Narwhals are one of the few creatures that remain in the arctic year-round, feasting during the winter and diving to the bottom of the ocean to feed. With fewer cold water feeding grounds, the narwhal faces a huge threat.

If you’re looking to see a narwhal in real life, you’ll have to go all the way to the Arctic to see one. Attempts to maintain narwhals in captivity have proven to be unsuccessful. 

Photo: Glenn Williams/NIST via Wikimedia Commons