The narwhal, or narwhale, Monodon monoceros, is a medium-sized toothed whale that lives year-round in the Arctic. One of two living species of whale in the Monodontidae family, along with the beluga whale, narwhal males are distinguished by a long, straight, helical tusk, actually an elongated upper left canine.
Changes in climate and decreasing sea ice extent in the Arctic, may cause narwhals to be more vulnerable than other cetaceans to these disturbances such as range restriction and predation, due to a strong association with the sea ice (IWC 1997; Tynan and DeMaster 1997; Higdon and Ferguson 2009). Laidre et al. (2008) further suggest that narwhals are among the most vulnerable species to climate and habitat change due to their specialization in feeding, narrow distribution, seasonal dependence on ice, and reliance on pack ice for predator avoidance.
The northern Hudson Bay narwhal (Monodon monoceros) population gathers in the area of Repulse Bay, Nunavut in the summer season. This population is hunted by local Inuit and co-managed by the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. There is some uncertainty as to the size of the population, the migration route this population takes to its wintering areas, if its winter range overlaps with that of other narwhal populations, and whether it is hunted by other communities during migrations.
“The whole thing that is great about the teeth of the narwhal is that nothing makes sense,” Nweeia adds. “The tusks are an extreme example of dental asymmetry. They exhibit uncharacteristic dimorphic or sexual expressions since females do not exhibit erupted tusks as commonly as males. Also, the tusk has a straight axis and a spiraled morphology. Conventional mechanisms of evolution do not help explain these expressions of teeth.
“Nothing makes sense,” explains Martin Nweeia, a practicing New England dentist and member of the Smithsonian’s Department of Vertebrate Zoology and the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. For one, narwhals have no teeth. “They eat large fish, yet swallow them whole. If you look in its mouth there’s nothing. There are absolutely no teeth.”
Narwhals are inhabitants of Arctic waters and are found at all depths. They tend to stay close to loose pack ice, where breathing holes are maintained through the sheets of ice.
Narwhals only have two teeth and in the males, the left one grows out of the jaw into a long spiralled tusk that can reach 2.5m in length and is prone to breaking. Suggested uses for such an impressive appendage include to spear food, for defence and as a weapon for competing males. However, its most likely use is to impress females, as an indication of the fittest mate.
Most narwhals travel in pods of 10-100 individuals and sometimes in much larger groups. They communicate with various sounds like squeals, trills and clicks. The males often cross tusks in a behavior known as ‘tusking’.
The "unicorn of the ocean," the narwhal (Monodon monoceros) is one of the rarest whales in the world. Narwhals are very elusive and mysterious in nature, and is very distinct in appearance due to the large horn-like tusk on its face. The tusk is actually a tooth that grows from the upper jaw of male narwhals.
Narwhals live in the cracks of dense pack ice for much of the year. They flee from motorboats and helicopters. They can't be herded toward shore like belugas, and because they're small (for whales) and maddeningly fast, it's little use trying to tag them with transmitters shot from air rifles.
The alabaster beluga's dark cousin, the narwhal is not a conventionally beautiful animal. Its unlovely name means "corpse whale," because its splotchy flesh reminded Norse sailors of a drowned body. This speckled complexion is "weird," says James Mead, curator of marine mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History (NMNH); usually, he says, whales are a more uniform color.