From the cows of the ocean, to the unicorns of the sea, Narwhals are a fascinating marine animal. Found all year round in the Arctic, Narwhals get there name from the colour of the skin. Narwhal literally translates as ‘corpse’ from the old Nordic word to describe the colour of a dead body. Narwhals are members of the order of cetaceans (more commonly known as whales).
They’re most striking feature and the reason why they are called ‘unicorns’ is their ‘tusk’. Unlike an elephant tusk, a Narwhal’s tusk is made of an elongated canine tooth and sits on top of there head. It starts in the left hand side of the upper jaw and pierces through he upper lip and continues outside of its body. The ‘tusk’ is helical and spirals out in an anti-clockwise direction. The tusk itself grows over the course of the whale’s life. It can go from the 4 feet in size to a whopping 10 feet long! This can almost double the body length of the Narwhal and is the longest tusk of any animal. About 1 in 500 male whales have a double tusk. This happens when the right canine also grows out the upper lip and it can grow to the same size as the left one. Males almost always grow a tusk when they reach adulthood, but only about 15% of females grow them. When they do grow them, females usually have a much smaller tusk size. In fact, there is only one reported example of a female having a double tusk!
The exact role of the tusk is unknown. Many think it has to do with sexual selection; where the females will preferentially choose males with larger tusks. Darwin himself strongly advocated this as the reason behind a Narwhal’s tusk. Other theories for a tusk could be that it used as a measure of a male’s fitness and therefore helps to form a hierarchy of whales in the ocean. Unlike other tusked animals, Narwhals seem to reluctant to use them for fighting. Additionally, the Narwhal rarely uses their tusk for physical tasks like breaking the ice. This may be because the tusk is actually hollow and is extremely light. The tusk itself weighs around 10 kg and therefore could be liable to breaking.
Narwhals can usually live a long life. A Narwhal will usually live at least 50 years. Their biggest mortality threat comes from migrating too slowly. If Narwhals are unable to move to warmer waters, they become trapped under the Arctic ice and suffocate. This means that Narwhals are particularly susceptible to climate change. Climate change may mean changes in ice formation will take place and therefore the whales may not be able to predict when they need to migrate or not.
In Inuit legend (the non offensive word for ‘Eskimo’) Narwhals develop their tusks when a female would tie herself around the rope of a harpoon and the harpoon would then get ‘stuck’ in the Narwhal. The female attached to the harpoon would then transform into a Narwhal herself and the tusk is formed by their long, twisted hair. Other theories for how Narwhals developed their tusks come from Medieval Britain where Narwhals were thought to have ‘stolen’ the tusk from unicorns. This meant that the Narwhal’s tusk would contain ‘magical’ powers. They were often hunted, their tusk would be removed and be powdered down into remedies and potions. It was thought that powdered tusk would create an antidote for any poison and this meant a Narwhal could be sold for many times its weight in gold.
In pop culture, Narwhals are often seen as oddities in the animal kingdom. It also become an unofficial hero of the website Reddit. It become so popular on the ‘frontpage of the internet’ that fellow Redditors used it as a code that they could use to help identify fellow members. One Redditor would ask another “When does the Narwhal Bacon?” and the other would reply “The Narwhal Bacons at Midnight” in order to identify themselves as a fellow Redditor.