Creature Feature: Narwhal | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Creature Feature: Narwhal

Often dubbed as the “unicorn of the ocean”, the Narwhal is an extremely rare and fascinating whale, with a prehistoric tusk that resembles something from a fairytale. Ellen Daugherty reports

scientists are still unsure of the purpose of this behaviour, and it could range from aggressive male fighting to a simple act of friendliness
Narwhals are a species of whale, in the same family as the beluga whale. They are characterised by a spiralled, sword-like horn, that is made primarily of ivory. This is actually just an extremely protruding upper canine, that can grow up to 8.8ft in males. Females can grow smaller tusks, but it is not vital for their survival. The difference in appearance between males and females, called sexual dimorphism, suggests that the tusk could be used in mating rituals by males. Alternatively it could be used by the females to assess the fitness of males, which would help them choose the best mating partner, to produce offspring that are most likely to survive and consequently pass on their genes.

Male competition can be seen in the ‘tusking’ behaviour that they display, which has been observed above and below water. It involves the males crossing tusks, much like in a sword fight. However, scientists are still unsure of the purpose of this behaviour, and it could range from aggressive male fighting to a simple act of friendliness. It is clear more research is needed about the sexual importance of the narwhal tusk.

Collective noun: Blessing (same as a unicorn’s)

Aside from being a large, extended tooth, the narwhal tusk also has sensory capabilities. Unlike the rest of its teeth, its horn is not protected by a layer of enamel, making it very sensitive. This allows the narwhals to sense any changes in the chemical balance in the water, which can lead them to food, or to females that are ready to mate as they can sense the release of their pheromones. The narwhal uses its extended to tooth to perceive its surrounding environment, which can be sensed through the hundreds of nerves that end in the tusk.

More needs to be done to stop ivory poachers, on land and sea, from harming these magnificent species
Narwhals travel in pods of 10-100 individuals, in which they feed on squid, fish and shrimp. They can be found primarily in Arctic waters, where they spend up to 5 winter months under sea ice. They can dive for around a mile and a half deep, and use the cracks in the surface of the ice to come up for air, as they generally prefer to swim nearer the surface. As such they can be easily spotted because of their distinguishable horn, making them extremely hard to miss.

These impressive creatures are labelled as ‘nearly threatened’ by IUCN, as they often face the same threats as elephants and rhinos, being susceptible to the ivory industry. More needs to be done to stop ivory poachers, on land and sea, from harming these magnificent species.

21 year old studying Biological Sciences, Science & Tech online editor. Especially interested in anything to do with zoology or anthropology, and an aspiration to be the next David Attenborough.



Published

12th December 2016 at 5:09 pm



Images from

Dr. Kristin Laidre



Share