Narwhal

Narwhal

Narwhale, Unicorn whale, Moon whale, Polar whale

Kingdom
Phylum
Subphylum
Class
Order
Infraorder
Family
Genus
SPECIES
Monodon monoceros
Population size
80,000
Life Span
50 yrs
WEIGHT
800-1,600 kg
LENGTH
4-5.5m

The narwhal, "unicorn of the ocean," is amongst the world's rarest whales. They are very mysterious and elusive by nature, and their big horn-like tusk gives them a very distinctive appearance. The tusk is, in fact, a tooth that grows out of the male's upper jaw. Adult narwhals typically have black and white spots on the dorsal parts of their body, and older narwhals can be almost entirely white. Calves are typically a blotchy gray.

Ca

Carnivore

Pi

Piscivores

Aq

Aquatic

Pr

Precocial

Na

Natatorial

Co

Congregatory

Vi

Viviparous

Po

Polygyny

So

Social

Do

Dominance hierarchy

Mi

Migrating

N

starts with

We

Weird Animals
(collection)

Distribution

Geography

Narwhals are scattered throughout Arctic waters and the North Atlantic Ocean. Most of them are found in Greenland and the eastern part of the Canadian Arctic Ocean. Narwhals migrate seasonally, with high fidelity of return to preferred, ice-free summering grounds, usually in shallow waters. In the summer months, they move closer to coasts, often in pods of 10-100. In the winter, they move to offshore, deeper waters under thick pack ice, surfacing in narrow fissures in the sea ice, or leads. As spring comes, these leads open up into channels and the narwhals return to the coastal bays.

Narwhal habitat map

Climate zones

Habits and Lifestyle

Narwhals are gregarious and commonly occur in pods of between 6 and 20 animals, though most groups number between 3 and 8. These groups often are segregated by sex, and pods of male 'bachelors' are common. In the summer, several groups come together, forming larger aggregations that can contain from 500 to over 1000 individuals. At times, a bull narwhal may rub its tusk with another bull, a display known as "tusking" and thought to maintain social dominance hierarchies. Narwhals remain near pack ice for the whole year. Breathing holes are created through sheets of ice with thrusts of their thick head, sometimes by several of them at the same time. Due to the lack of well-developed dentition in the mouth, narwhals are believed to feed by swimming towards prey until it is within close range and then sucking it with considerable force into the mouth. The distinctive tusk is used to tap and stun small prey, facilitating a catch. Narwhals are very vocal, squeaking and clicking as they travel. Like many cetaceans, narwhals slap their flippers on the water as they surface, raising their tusks and heads out of the water.

Seasonal behavior

Diet and Nutrition

Narwhals are carnivores (piscivores). Their diet includes Greenland halibut, polar and Arctic cod, cuttlefish, shrimp, and armhook squid. They also consume wolffish, capelin, and skate eggs.

Mating Habits

MATING BEHAVIOR
REPRODUCTION SEASON
March-May
PREGNANCY DURATION
15 months
BABY CARRYING
1 calf
INDEPENDENT AGE
1 year
FEMALE NAME
cow
MALE NAME
bull
BABY NAME
calf

Narwhals are polygynous, an adult male mating with multiple females during one mating season. Mating usually occurs from March to May, when males court the females and compete with one another. The gestation period is around 15 months, with calves being born in July and August the year following. Narwhals give birth to a single calf and they are born tail first. The tusks of males do not grow until they are weaned when they are about one year old. Young narwhals can swim soon after birth. A female will give birth once every three years. Males generally are reproductively mature between the ages of 8 and 10, while females achieve maturity when they are 4-7 years old.

Population

Population threats

Narwhals are hunted for meat, their skin, called "maktaq", and their ivory tusks, sold as curios or for carving. They are susceptible to climate fluctuations as well as long-term climate change. Their range declines as pack ice recedes. They have sometimes been trapped under the ice which forms too quickly for them to make a breathing hole. Industrial extraction, marine construction, shipping, and military activities cause noise pollution under the water. As narwhals depend on sound for communication, interference by noise pollution may impact their ability to navigate, access food and mates, avoid predators and look after their young.

Population number

According to the IUCN Red List, the global narwhal population size is around 80,000 individuals, including estimates for this species in specific regions: Canadian High Arctic - 70,000 animals; northern Hudson Bay - 3,500 animals; West Greenland - over 2,000 animals; East Greenland – fewer than 1,000 animals. The narwhal population is currently classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List.

Ecological niche

Narwhals are at the top of the food chain and have an important role in the overall health of the marine environment, controlling the populations of the prey items they consume.

Fun Facts for Kids

  • Due to the animal's large ivory tusks, they are known as unicorns of the sea.
  • Narwhal tusks are thought to play a role in mating, as some males have been seen crossing tusks, like fencing behavior, which may serve to display youthfulness, social status, or strength among narwhals.
  • The narwhal (minus the tusk) is approximately the same size as an adult beluga whale.
  • When in their wintering waters, narwhals make some of the deepest dives recorded for a marine mammal, diving to at least 800 meters (2,620 feet) over 15 times per day, with many dives reaching 1,500 meters (4,920 feet). Dives to these depths last around 25 minutes, including the time spent at the bottom and the transit down and back from the surface.
  • The animal's famous tusk is a very long tooth, the largest ever recorded being over 2.5 meters long.
  • Narwhals are unique and amazing swimmers. They can stop and remain motionless in the water for some time. They usually swim belly up, so when they lie completely still, it seems as if they are dead. They are also therefore known as "corpse whale".
  • Narwhals change color as they get older. Babies are mottled blue-gray, young narwhals are totally blue-black, the adults are mottled gray, while old narwhals are almost completely white.

References

1. Narwhal Wikipedia article - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narwhal
2. Narwhal on The IUCN Red List site - http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/13704/0

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