The Narwhal

(Monodon monoceros)

The Narwhal is unlike any other cetacean. The male has a long spiralling tusk which is not normally possessed by the female. The tusk which grows to a length of 1.5-3m (5-10ft) is actually a modified tooth and looks like a twisted and gnarled walking stick. During the 17th century the Narwhal tusk was thought to have been the horn of the legendary unicorn. Studies suggest that males engage in aggressive behavior when competing for females. Scars attributed to tusk action have been found on the heads of adult males which are more likely to have broken tusks.

The Narwhal shares many physical characteristics with the Beluga (Delphinapterus leucas). They are similar in shape and size, they have short beaks, rounded heads, lack dorsal fins and have a thick layer of blubber. An adult Narwhal will grow to a length of 4-5m (13-16ft) and weigh 0.8-1.6 tonnes.

The head of the Narwhal is proportionately small with a bulbous forehead. While almost all males develope a single tusk from the tooth on the left-hand side of upper jaw, only 3% of females grow a thin tusk. All have a very slight beak, short flippers and flukes which appear to be on 'backwards'.

Narwhal image

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Family: Monodontidae

Subfamily: Monodontinae

Other Names: Narwhale

The Narwhal lives mainly in the High Arctic, often amongst the pack ice and generally offshore. There are large concentrations in the Davis Strait, around Baffin Bay and in the Greenland Sea. The advance and retreat of the ice initiates migration. The Narwhal is seldom found further south than 70 deg North and spends its summer in deep, cold fjords and bays.

The Narwhal has a varied diet, feeding upon squid, fish and crustaceans. With few functional teeth this animal must use suction and the emission of a jet of water to dislodge prey such as bottom-living fish and molluscs. Its highly flexible neck aids the scanning of a broad area and the capture of more mobile prey.

Although the Narwhal is preyed upon by Polar Bears, Walruses, Orcas and a number of sharks its major enemy is man. It has been hunted by the Inuit people for centuries for its tusk, flesh and other edible parts. Its thick skin is traditionally eated raw as a delicacy, much of the meat is fed to sled dogs and the blubber is rendered down for heating and lighting. In the Thule district Narwhal are still traditionally harpooned from kayak but most modern Inuit hunters use fast motor boats and high-powered rifles. Subsistance hunting communities have a long tradition of established rules but they clearly need to take account of developments that alter their operation from an 'aboriginal' manner.

The world total for Narwhal's stands at between 25,000 and 45,000 animals.

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