Narwhals – Unicorns in the Ocean

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Have you ever seen a photo of a whale with a long, spindly horn sticking out of its head? As unreal as this may seem, it’s actually not. Narwhals have a long tusk (fun fact: it’s actually a tooth) growing out of their heads. I saw the scene with the narwhal in Elf, and I thought, “Narwhals could be interesting to learn more about.” Here are some of the weird and wonderful things I learned about narwhals.

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What Are Narwhals?

narwhal pod
Narwhal pod

Despite both creatures having a singular horn, narwhals are not related to the mythical unicorn. They are actually most closely related to beluga whales. They’re also related to porpoises, bottlenose dolphins, and orcas.

narwhal tusk

Narwhals live their entire lives in the frigid temperatures of the Arctic Ocean, so they require a good layer of blubber to help keep them warm. They usually travel in pods consisting of 15-30 members and feed on fish such as halibut or cod. Squid and shrimp are also included in their diets at times.

When narwhals are born, they weigh roughly 180 pounds and measure about 5 feet in length. Young narwhals (calves) are a dark blue-gray color and remain with their mothers for up to 20 months before branching out to mate. Adult females can grow up to 13 feet long and can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, while adult males can be as long as 15 feet and weigh as much as 3,500 pounds. As narwhals age, their blue-gray color turns blue-black, then becomes a speckled pattern of black, brown, and white.

Crazy Tusk

The tusk is perhaps the most interesting and mysterious aspect of the narwhal. It’s often referred to as a horn, but this description isn’t accurate. Rather, narwhals have two teeth embedded in their gums. The right tooth remains in the gum, while the left tooth becomes the pointed,

narwhal skeleton
Narwhal skeleton

ivory tusk. As it grows, the tooth spirals counter-clockwise and acts as a corkscrew, breaking through the jaw. This generally only happens in male narwhals, though a small percentage of females have been known to also grow tusks. Tusks can grow as long as ten feet, and in some rare cases, males will grow a second tusk.

A narwhal’s tusk is different from the tusks of other animals because it is soft on the outside and hard on the inside. Despite its softness, the tusk bends about a foot before it breaks. On the surface of the tusk are millions of tiny holes with exposed nerves. These nerves help narwhals detect the barometric pressure in the air, as well as the temperature, pressure level, and salinity of the water.

narwhal illustrationVarious theories exist regarding the purpose of the tusk, but none of them have enough evidence to back them up. One theory is that narwhals use the tusk to establish dominance and duel with other males. However, many point out how painful this would be, since there are millions of exposed nerves on the tusks. Other theories have to do with spearing food, breaking through ice, communication. These are all based on speculation rather than evidence however. The theory that most researchers can agree on is that the tusk is related to mating, though once again, the evidence is inconclusive.

Causing a Commotion

We might not know a lot about narwhals, but this only seems to fuel our fascination with them. They have become a part of our pop culture and have even had a catchy song written about them. Many people would like to learn more about these wondrous creatures, but narwhals are unable to survive in captivity. This makes it difficult to study them more closely, so for now, they will have to remain a mystery.


Lambert, K. (2008, Aug. 18). How Narwhals Work. Retrieved from

Narwhal. (2006). Retrieved Dec. 12, 2016 from

Narwhal Facts. (2016) Retrieved from

The Unicorn of the Sea: Ten Facts About Narwhals. (2015). Retrieved from

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