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Stuff You Should Know: The Unicorns Of The Sea

Narwhals are a type of whale known for their majestic tusk that can extend to more than 10 feet.

A narwhal blissfully swimming through the sea.

Nicknamed “unicorns of the sea,” narwhals have obtained a nearly legendary status. It’s a common misconception that narwhals are not real, however, they are completely real and can be found in arctic waters. The name comes from “nar,” an old Norse word meaning “corpse.” They are named that due to the splotchy whiteness that develops as the narwhal ages. The scientific name, monodon monoceros, is Greek for one-toothed unicorn.

Narwhals are able to dive about a mile under the frigid arctic water where they reside, close to the deepest of any mammal. They can stay underwater for up to 25 minutes and can be found eating fish, shrimp, and squid. They are also very social creatures. It has been observed that they will try to avoid hitting other narwhals with their tusk so as not to hurt each other. 

Narwhals typically work together in pods, which can reach up to 25, but the average is around four. While migrating, pods can join together – reaching groups of up to several hundred. Communication consists of short clicks that are likely used as echolocation, which helps during hunting and to keep pods together. Whistling noises are also used to call each other.

The narwhal’s tusk is actually an overgrown tooth and a sensory organ with up to ten million nerve endings. It’s also far more prominent in males than females. Scientists believe that the tusk can be used to detect things like the salinity and temperature of the water. The tusk can be a versatile tool as well: narwhals have been observed breaking ice with their tusk in order to get to the surface. It is believed that they are also used to impress females and fight other males. The myth that the tusk is used to spear prey whilst hunting has never been witnessed and is most likely not true. The tusk is also a valuable asset against their main predators, Orcas, and polar bears.


Images courtesy of Jack Brummet.

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