All About the Narwhal: The Unicorn Whale

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 21st October 2023

Scientific nameMonodon monocerosWeight800 to 1,600 kilograms (1,760 to 3,530 pounds)
PronunciationNAR-wuhl.Length3.4 meters (11.2 feet)
ClassificationMammalia, Artiodactyla, MonodontidaeLocationArctic waters around Greenland, Canada, and Russia

The Narwhal

Narwhal | dottedhippo via iStock

Narwhals look like a cross between a unicorn and a whale. 

The medium-sized whale has a large tusk formed by a protruding canine tooth. 

No one knows how long they’ve been around, but fossil records of toothed whales show that their ancestors evolved about 56 million years ago.

A narwhal’s long, spiral tusk is its most distinctive feature. 

While males have only one tusk (or two in rare cases), only 15 percent of females do. 

The deep divers of the oceans | dottedhippo via iStock

The Arctic marine mammal is one of the deepest divers in the whale family and adapts well to deep and shallow, ice-covered coastal areas. 

Narwhals live in pods, a group of a few individuals to hundreds. 

They eat fish and squids and are preyed on by orcas and bears. 

In this article, we will explore other fascinating facts about this impressive unicorn of the sea, including what it looks like, how it lives, and its interaction with humans. 

Gage Beasley's In-Demand Plush Toys
Gage Beasley’s In-Demand Plush Toys

Taxonomy and Classification

Narwhal whales live in social groups called pods and live in the Arctic Ocean and males have a tusk | CoreyFord via iStock

The scientific name of the narwhal is Monodon monoceros

It belongs to the family Monodontidae, along with the beluga whale. 

Both species are the only extant members of this family.

Narwhals and other toothed whale species are collectively grouped in the Odontocetes superfamily. 

Scientists believe all whales evolved from terrestrial ancestors about 56 to 54 million years ago.

This was during the Eocene Epoch. 

Gage Beasley's Narwhal Stuffed Plush Toy
Gage Beasley’s Narwhal Stuffed Plush Toy

Physical Characteristics 

Rare arctic whale species in natural environment | dottedhippo via iStock

Like most species in the Monodontidae family, narwhals are medium-sized whales. 

Males are generally larger than females, growing to an average length of 4.1 meters (13.5 feet) compared to the female’s average length of about 3.5 meters (11.5 feet). 

Similarly, the average weight of an adult male is 800 to 1,600 kilograms (1,800 to 3,530 pounds), while females weigh about 1,000 kilograms. 

The tusk, which is the most conspicuous feature of this whale species, is actually a canine tooth. 

Although it often appears like it’s centrally located, the narwhal’s tusk projects from the left side of the whale’s upper jaw 

The tusk is hollow and weighs around 10 kilograms (22 pounds). 

3D rendering of a male narwhal or Monodon monoceros | Vac1 via iStock

It grows throughout the whale’s lifetime, reaching a maximum length of about 3.1 meters (10.2 feet).

Male narwhals typically grow one tusk, while the underdeveloped right tooth remains vestigial.  

However, in rare cases, a few males (about one in 500) grow two tusks. 

Female narwhals may develop tusks, too. 

This happens only in about 15 percent of females. 

Unlike males, female tusks are smaller and have a less noticeable spiral. 

Contrary to popular belief, the tusk is not primarily for male-to-male rivalry — its use is even more fascinating!  

The narwhal’s tusk is a sensory organ with millions of nerve endings. 

It can be used to detect stimuli in seawater. 

Two narwhals communicating to each other by rubbing their tusks | Clip Image via Wanderlust Wisdom

Narwhals also rub their tusks together to communicate information about the characteristics of water each one has traveled through. 

Vestigial teeth surround the tusks on all sides.  

Narwhals have blackish or mottled gray coloration. 

Some also have prominent white patches that provide camouflage in icy waters. 

Like many Arctic mammals, a thick layer of blubber under their skin provides buoyancy and insulation. 

Narwhals have small, rounded heads compared to other whale species. 

They use their tail for propulsion and possess small dorsal fins that provide stability when swimming. 

Habitat and Distribution 

Arctic Ocean | PeterHermesFurian via iStock

Narwhals live in parts of the Arctic Ocean, bordering Russia and Greenland. 

They also live in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean in North America. 

This includes the Canadian Arctic Archipelago parts of the Hudson Bay and Hudson Strait.

The narwhal is well adapted to surviving in this region’s cold, icy waters. 

Narwhals are seasonal migratory animals. 

This means they move from one part of the ocean to the other during different seasons of the year.

They live closer to the coast during summer but tend to migrate into deeper waters during winter. 

Big blocks of ice floating over sea from aerial point of view | Neorodan via iStock

Narwhals are the only whale species that spend the winter under the dense pack ice of the Arctic. 

They can spend up to five months under the ice during their wintering period. 

To breathe under the thick ice, narwhals look for cracks from where they can pop up for air when needed.

Although narwhals mostly live in shallow waters, they are also famous for their tendency to make deep dives into the ocean. 

For instance, narwhals can dive to depths of about 800 to 1500 meters (2,620 to 4,920 ft) during their wintering periods. 

They repeat these dives several times during the day (up to 15 times), spending about 25 minutes under the water.

This makes them the deepest diving mammal in the ocean. 

How long these whales spend under the water depends on the season and local variations in the water conditions. 

Behavior and Social Structure 

Narwhal whales live in social groups called pods and live in the Arctic ocean and males have a tusk | CoreyFord via iStock

Narwhals are very social animals, and they often form groups called pods. 

The pod size varies, ranging from five to 20 individuals outside the summer. 

The group may be nurseries for only young and females or contain adult males and post-dispersal juveniles. 

The congregation grows in the summer and may contain up to 1,000 individuals. 

During this period, bulls compete to maintain social dominance hierarchies. 

Male narwhals use tusk displays for communication and attracting mates. 

Narwhals, like other cetaceans, are voluntary breathers. 

In other words, they come to the surface at intervals to breathe. 

Narwhals also vocalize through knocks, whistles, and clicks, creating air movements between chambers near the blow-hole. 

Diet and Feeding 

Three Cuttlefish in one image | Placebo365 via iStock

Narwhals are carnivores with a specialized diet that consists of cuttlefish, polar and Arctic cod, cuttlefish, Greenland halibut, armhook squid, and shrimp. 

Although they’re toothed whales, the narwhal’s dentition is not developed enough for biting or chewing prey. 

Instead, the narwhal swims towards its prey and sucks it in with considerable force. 

When hunting smaller prey, the narwhal may also use its distinctive tusk to tap and stun the prey, making it easier to catch them.

Narwhal pods have been observed hunting together, especially when hunting large schools of fish. 

Reproduction and Life Cycle 

Narwhal couple | dottedhippo via iStock

Narwhals mate in the offshore ice pack in the spring or early summer (April or May). 

During open courtship displays, males use tusks to display nonviolent behaviors to attract females. 

After mating, the female carries her pregnancy for up to 14 months. 

This means the young narwhals are born between June and August of the following year. 

Usually, only a single pup is born, but twins may occur in rare cases. 

The calf measures 1.6 meters (5.2 feet) at birth. 

A beluga whale blowing air | racheldonahue via iStock

Due to its proximity to the belugas, narwhal females and beluga males sometimes mate, creating hybrids. 

However, it isn’t clear if these hybrids are fertile (since most interspecies hybrids tend to be sterile). 

After birth, calves accompany their mothers for up to 20 months and fully depend on their milk for survival. 

During this period, their blubber, which typically starts out as a thin layer, thickens.

The lactation period also provides enough time to learn survival skills. 

The Narwhal and her calf | CoreyFord via iStock

Needless to say, calves are most vulnerable during the juvenile stage. 

As they grow, they learn to dive and join social interactions within the pod. 

Males develop tusks around four to seven years, which continue to grow and spiral over time. 

Narwhals live up to around 50 to 60 years. 

However, their specific lifespan depends on various factors like human influence and environmental conditions.  

Ecological Role and Interaction 

Narwhal seen at the ocean surface | пресс-служба via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

Narwhals are carnivores. 

Their diet mainly consists of fish, squid, and shrimp. 

Hence, they play a vital role in regulating the population of prey species. 

At the same time, they serve as a food source for potential predators like killer whales and polar bears. 

Orcas group together to overwhelm narwhal pods in shallow waters, killing dozens in a single attack. 

Polar Bears are predators that preys on Narwhals | Fallows via Wikipedia CC BY 2.5

Similarly, polar bears may attack calves and adults at their breathing holes. 

Apart from animal predators, humans hunt narwhals for their skin, meat, and blubber. 

In fact, humans are the biggest threat to narwhals, with up to 1,000 of these marine mammals killed by humans every year. 

They’re also actively targeted for their tusks, which can be sold with or without carvings. 

Narwhals influence sea ice dynamics by using their tusks to create breathing holes, thereby affecting local ice conditions. 

Apart from this, their movements and feeding patterns influence the abundance of certain prey species.

Conservation Status and Threats 

Narwhals are of the least concern species according to the IUCN | NaturalWorldLover via NatureRules1

Narwhals are considered a species of “Least Concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

However, many sub-populations currently show evidence of decline. 

They are mainly threatened by human actions, especially since they’re typically hunted for their horn, blubber, and meat. 

In response, the European Union banned tusk imports in 2004. 

Similarly, the United States has forbidden imports of narwhal horns since 1972 under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. 

Humans hunt narwhals the same way as other sea mammals. 

But unlike others, all parts of the narwhal, including the meat, skin, fat, and organs, are consumed, making them very valuable and putting them at greater risk. 

Narwhal hunt in 1854 | Grafissimo via iStock

In 2013, 81 narwhals generated CA$ 530,000, or CA$ 6,500 per kill. 

Besides human actions, changes in sea ice coverage make narwhals one of the most vulnerable Arctic marine mammals to climate change. 

Due to changes in sea ice, exposure to open water increases catches by hunters in Siorapaluk. 

Seismic surveys associated with oil exploration have also disrupted narwhal migration patterns, increasing their risk of getting trapped in sea ice. 

To make sure narwhal populations are stable, scientists are urging an in-depth assessment of population numbers of narwhals across their typical range. 

International agreements and regulations such as the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish, and North Seas (ASCOBANS) protect cetaceans, including narwhals. 

Unique Adaptation and Survival Strategies 

Narwhal tusk
Narwhal tusk | Wellcome Library via Wikipedia CC BY 4.0

The most iconic feature of a narwhal is its long, spiral tusk. 

This elongated canine tooth serves different purposes. 

Individuals use it to communicate, display mating intents, and break ice to create breathing holes. 

Like other toothed whales, narwhals use echolocation to navigate, communicate, and find prey. 

Apart from this, they emit clicks and whistles. 

The sea unicorn is famous for its extreme deep diving abilities, reaching a depth of over 1,500 meters (4,920 feet) to locate prey and avoid predators in the cold Arctic waters. 

The thick blubber layer beneath their skin provides insulation, energy reserve, and buoyancy. 

In recent years, narwhals have developed a unique flexibility in habitat selection in response to their vulnerability to sea ice changes. 

The fact that these mammals live in groups also gives them an edge when hunting prey or avoiding predators. 

Narwhals migrate seasonally, a vital adaptation that gives them access to different feeding areas. 

Cultural Significance and Human Interactions 

Narwhals are important creatures in the Arctic community | DanZFLT via Endless Ocean

Narwhals hold a cultural significance in the indigenous Arctic communities. 

Their presence and abundance are an indication of the impact of climate change on Arctic environments since alterations in sea ice, temperature, and prey availability affect their distribution. 

Indigenous Arctic communities like Yupik and Inuits have coexisted with narwhals for a long time, and these fascinating creatures often appear in their folklore and stories. 

In Inuit legend, the narwhal’s tusk was created when a woman with a harpoon rope around her waist was dragged into the ocean. 

It occurred after the harpoon caught a giant whale, and the woman was transformed into the unicorn-like sea mammal we know today. 

Unicorn | cloudytronics via iStock

Medieval Europeans compared the narwhal’s tusk to the horn of a unicorn. 

They’re believed to possess magical powers and were used in the past for making cups with the magical ability to neutralize any poison. 

Northern traders and Vikings targeted narwhals and sold their tusks at a valuable price. 

In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth 1 was given a narwhal tusk worth up to 10,000 pounds by the English sailor Martin Frobisher. 

The cost of this tusk is believed to be expensive enough to build a castle.

In more recent times, the narwhal has been referenced in literature materials like the Moby-dick written in 1851 by American novelist Herman Melville.

Future Prospects and Research 

A Narwhal seen at the surface | Scanova via Additional Creatures Fandom

Narwhal is one of the species Carl Linnaeus described in his publication Systema Naturae in 1758. 

Since then, numerous research has been done to understand this enigmatic species further. 

In recent times, research has mainly focused on the effects of climate change and how it affects narwhal populations. 

Narwhal research focuses on understanding their seasonal migration patterns and identifying critical habitats, migratory routes, and life cycles.  

Some of these studies also seek to understand how narwhals interact with humans and other animals within their ecosystem. 

Genetic studies are also ongoing to identify distinct narwhal populations.

Experts believe combining scientific findings with traditional indigenous knowledge about narwhals will aid our understanding of these species.  


The narwhal is an impressive whale species found in the deep Arctic waters around Greenland, Canada, and Russia. 

It is one of the only two living whale species in the family Monodontidae and the only species in the genus Monodon. 

Narwhals prey on small fishes, squids, and other deep-sea species

The narwhal’s habitat is one of the most vulnerable habitats affected by climate change. 

As temperature rises and ice retreats, the species is being forced to navigate a delicate balance between adaptation and threats posed by human activities. 

To protect them, conservative efforts must be geared toward stalling the effects of climate change and protecting this unique animal from human disturbances. 


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