It’s official. Narwhals make the cutest sounds of all cetaceans. (Although Pacific white-sided dolphins come to a close second).
This audio was recorded by Ari Daniel Shapiro and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and was obtained via this website. I am reposting for educational uses only. Image by Paul Nicklen and found here.
The beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) is one of the most well-known cetacean species, found in Arctic and sub-Arctic oceans. This pure white whale is one of the two species of the family Monodontidae, with the other being the narwhal. Belugas have a varied diet depending on their location and the time of year, eating fish, crustaceans, and marine invertebrates. Belugas are sometimes preyed upon by polar bears and killer whales. They are highly social and live in pods, and sometimes gather in massive groups. They are considered one of the most vocal cetacean species, and are one of the few cetacean species capable of swimming backwards. The species is listed as Near Threatened, though some individual populations are at greater risk.
Narwhals are distinguishable by the 2-3m long tusk that is found mostly on males. In Europe, these tusks were once sold as the horns of the mythical unicorn.
In the summer months they are found to congregate in the hundreds and even thousands on rich feeding grounds, whilst during winter the majority of them disperse into smaller groups. The narwhal and the beluga together comprise the Monodontidae family.
Like the beluga, the narwhal lives only in the most northerly climes. Physical characteristics include a bulbous forehead, no prominent beak, an arched mouthline, a dorsal ridge rather than a fin, and short blunt flippers with upcurled edges. The fluke has an oddly convex trailing edge which makes it appear as if it was put on backwards.
Adult males have ‘jousting’ competitions, making distinctive ‘clacking’ sounds. Many adult males have scars from these fights, and as many as 1/3 of males have broken tusks. It is thought that social status is linked to tusk length. Approximately 3% of females have a tusk, and there has only been 1 documented case of a female with two tusks.
During annual migrations, hundreds or even thousands may travel together, swimming fast and close to the surface. They can be found floating motionless at the surface with part of the tusk or flipper visible.
Narwhals inhabit waters above the Arctic Circle, right up to the edge of the ice cap. The species is often found around pack ice. In the summer, narwhals migrate to cold, deep fjords and bays closer to land. Natural predators include polar bears, killer whales, and some sharks. Hunted by humans for centuries for their tusk ivory, their skin and blubber, called mattak, is still today sought after as a food source for native peoples in Canada and Greenland.
Narwhals! Our first P4A entry! Narwhals are, obviously, not dinosaurs - in fact, they are modern whales. Still alive! They are near threatened in terms of conservation status, which, given how so many cetaceans (the group that includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises) are threatened - or even near extinct - that’s a good thing. They’re medium sized, toothed whales (rather than having baleen,) about 3.95 to 5.5 meters long for both sexes, excluding the tusk of the male. Males are slightly larger than females, and attain sexual maturity between 11 and 13 years old, where females become sexually mature between 5 and 8 years old. It has a mottled, blackish-brown over white patterning, and are darkest when born and become whiter as they age. Old males can be almost pure white.
Narwhals do not have a dorsal fin, allowing them to swim more easily under the ice. They have jointed neck vertebrae like land mammals, instead of fused ones like most whales, characteristics shared by its close cousin the Beluga whale. The tusk develops in the males from a single long canine tooth, which grow throughout the life of the male and form a helical spiral, and can grow from 1.5 to 3.1 meters long. One in 500 males have two tusks, when the right canine also grows in addition to the left. Females sometimes grow tusks, but only about 15% do, and they’re smaller and less noticeable. Females may also have two tusks, but there’s only one recorded case as such. The tusks are surrounded by very small teeth which are vestigial, aka, they don’t really do anything. The tusk is also a sensory organ, with million nerve endings connecting the stimuli from the ocean with the brain. Males rubbing their tusks together tells the males what kind of water they’ve traveled through; they’re rarely used for aggressive behavior.
It’s found mostly in the Atlantic and Russian areas of the Arctic ocean, commonly found in the Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait, Baffin Bay, and Greenland. Most of them are concentrated in the fjords and inlets of Northern Canada and western Greenland. They can survive in depths of 1,500 m below sea level. They migrate seasonal, and return to preferred ice-free summering grounds, close to the coast in pods of 10-100 individuals. In the winter they move to offshore, deep water underneath pack ice, and can only surface in holes in the ice. They do most of their feeding in the winter.
They congregate in groups of 5 to 10 usually, but they may grow up to 20. They can be only females and young, but they can have some juveniles and adult males. Mixed groups can occur at any time of the year. In the summer, several groups gather together, in large groups of 500 to more than 100 individuals. They predominantly eat Greenland halibut, polar and Arctic cod, cuttlefish, shrimp, armhook squid, and sometimes wolffish, capelin, skate eggs, and accidental rocks. They swim towards prey until its in close range and then suck it with large force into their mouths to eat, given the vestigial nature of their teeth. They make some of the deepest dives of marine mammals, diving 800 meters over 15 times a day, sometimes even reaching 1,500 meters.
Narwhals use clicks, whistles, and knocks (aka vocal communication) to navigate and hunt for food, creating these sounds with the air between chambers near the blow-hole, and then reflecting off the skull, that are focused by the melon - a mass of fat tissue in the forehead that’s found in all toothed whales (which includes dolphins and porpoises). Some sounds may disorient and incapacitate prey, making them easier to hunt. The whistles are rarely heard; they also trumpet, and make sounds like a squeaking door. Females start having calves between the ages of 6 and 8, and the adults mate in April or May. The gestation period is 14 months, and calves are born between June and August the following year. Only a single calf is born, usually 1.6 meters long and dark grey. They are dependent on milk for 20 months as they learn how to survive.
Narwhals can live at least 50 years, and almost all modern predation is by humans. They also can be fed on by polar bears, which will swipe at narwhal breathing holes and target young whales. Orcas can also group together to overwhelm narwhals. Greenland sharks and walrus may occasionally eat the young and weak and wounded individuals, but its rare. Narwhals will typically use prolonged diving to hide, rather than speed. They can swim only less than 1,450 meters before suffocating, meaning that they need breathing holes in ice sheets, and often can die when the ice is completely covering the water, a process called entrapment. The movement of sea ice due to melting of sea ice causing the increased distribution of the rest of it have caused major entrapment incidents in recent years.
Narwhal ancestors and porpoises, to which they are very closely related, diverged from other Delphinoides (a large group including narwhals, belugas, dolphins, and porpoises) about 11 million years ago. The group narwhals and belugas are a part of, called “white whales,” originally lived in tropical waters. They may have migrated to the Arctic and sub-Arctic due to changes in the ecosystems of the oceans during the Pliocene. Today, there are about 75,000 individuals in the world, and many sub-populations have declined. There is a ban on tusk import in the European Union, and many other countries have quotas on catches. Very few are kept in captivity, as they are quite hard to keep in captivity (like… all… cetaceans…). The Inuit are allowed to hunt narwhals for subsistence, which does not make a major impact on the population, unlike the hunting for fat and oil that was done during the days of whaling. Narwhals are also greatly threatened by metals and population in the water, and are extremely vulnerable to climate change.
The narwhal, or narwhale (and often called unicorn of the sea) is a medium-sized toothed whale and possesses a large “tusk” from a protruding canine tooth. It lives year-round in the Arctic waters around Greenland, Canada, and Russia. It is one of two living species of whale in the Monodontidae family, along with the beluga whale. The narwhal males are distinguished by a long, straight, helical tusk, which is an elongated upper left canine. Narwhals can live up to 50 years old. They are often killed by suffocation when the sea ice freezes over. Another cause of fatality, specifically among young whales, is starvation. The current population of the narwhal is about 75,000, so narwhals qualify for Near Threatened under the criterion of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Narwhals normally congregate in groups of about five to ten, and sometimes up to 20 outside the summer. As with most toothed whales, narwhals use sound to navigate and hunt for food.
photo credits: Paul Nicklen/National Geographic/Getty Images
The narwhal, or narwhale (Monodon monoceros), is a medium-sized toothed whale and possesses a large “tusk” from a protruding canine tooth. It lives year-round in the Arctic waters around Greenland, Canada, and Russia. It is one of two living species of whale in the Monodontidae family, along with the beluga whale.
Some medieval Europeans believed narwhal tusks to be the horns from the legendary unicorn. As these horns were considered to have magic powers, such as neutralising poison and curing melancholia, Vikings and other northern traders were able to sell them for many times their weight in gold.