What is a narwhal? Found in Arctic waters, the narwhal is a small-toothed whale, a species closely related to the beluga. What makes the narwhal unusual is its teeth. Narwhals have two of them, but in males the larger one pushes through the upper lip and grows into a spiral tusk that can be almost nine feet in length. Female narwhals sometimes grow a tusk, but theirs is much smaller than the male's.
Unicorn of the SeaThe narwhal is most likely the basis for the legend of the unicorn. During medieval times, people believed unicorns really existed. Their proof was the tusks of narwhals that had been brought back from the Arctic by Viking sailors. These "unicorn horns" were believed to have magical properties, such as making poison harmless. Drinking cups made from ivory tusks were worth their weight in gold.
A Whale of a BabyNarwhals live together in groups called pods that can contain from two to hundreds of members. The pods can consist of males and females, all males, or all females. An adult male narwhal can grow to be 16 feet long and weigh up to 4,000 pounds. A female gives birth to one baby, or calf, every three years or so. The newborn weighs in at around 200 pounds and is about five feet long.
In Great DangerThe Inuit, people native to the Arctic, hunt the narwhal for its ivory tusk and its meat. The whale provides an important source of vitamin C in their diet. Hunters, however, are allowed to kill only a certain number of narwhals a year. The real danger to narwhals lies in climate change. The whale lives and hunts near the Arctic coast. As ice melts due to global warming, predators, such as killer whales, can move in and attack. Also, warmer weather makes chunks of ice break off. This creates more icebergs, under which narwhals can get trapped and even suffocate.
- About one in 500 male narwhals sport double tusks.
- The narwhal tusk is the only straight tusk in the world. Tusks of other animals, like the elephant, rhino, and walrus, are curved.
- If chipped, a tusk can sometimes repair itself.
The Narwhal's TUSKThe ivory tusk that sticks out from the whale's head is flexible. It's able to bend about a foot without breaking.
What is the purpose other the tusk? Scientists aren't sure. Some think the tusk helps established dominance over other males and, like a lion's mane or peacock's feathers, helps attract females. Some researchers think the tusk might be a sensory organ that helps the narwhal locate food or even figure out sea temperature. But if that's true, why don't most females have tusks?