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What is a Narwhal?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 03 December 2016
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The narwhal, Monodon monoceros is an arctic species of whale, closely related to the beluga. It is easily identified by the long, spiral-patterned tooth protruding from the head of the male. Narwhals are freely hunted by Inuit hunters, but recent studies showing the population’s vulnerability to climate change has prompted a greater effort for conservation.

Adult narwhals reach between 13 and 26 ft (4-8 m) in length and weigh between 2,200 and 3,500 lbs (1,000 to 1,600 kg). Males are somewhat larger than females, and feature a single tusk or tooth protruding from their skulls. The tooth, which forms a helix, can be about ten ft (3 m) long, and weighs approximately 22 lbs (10 kg.) About one in five hundred males will feature double tusks, and tusked females have also been recorded.

Narwhal tusks are considered to be responsible for unicorn legends. Vikings returning from long trips would often bring spiraled horns as proof of the legendary and magical horse. Some surviving examples of these horns are carved in elaborate designs, and were believed to have healing properties. Close inspection proves that the unicorn horns are actually the tusks of the narwhal.

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Experts have never come to an agreed conclusion on the function of the animal's tusk. Popular theories suggest that it may be used for dominance and to attract mates, or that it may be used to break Arctic ice. Other experts suggest that the tusk may be used in echolocation, to help narwhals located food. Recent studies suggest that the tusk may serve as a sensory organ, possibly able to detect temperature and salinity. Tusks do not regrow if broken, but can sometimes repair themselves if chipped.

Narwhals are mostly surface-dwelling animals, although dives of up to 5000 ft (1500 m) have been recorded. A diving narwhal will remain down for only a few minutes before returning to the surface. They feed on available Arctic fish, although there have been reports that they will eat other mammals if food sources are scarce.

The narwhal is hunted by polar bears, killer whales, and humans. Moving ice floes can trap the animals into small bays, where they are easy prey for predators. Inuit hunters value the narwhal as a sauce of vitamin C, vital to the human body and scarce in the Arctic region. A 2008 study shows that climate change leaves the narwhal more vulnerable to population damage than any other Arctic mammal, leading to increased interest in the protection of the species.

Much about the narwhal is unknown. For instance, it is difficult to determine how long narwhals live in the wild, as there is no known method for determining their age past reaching maturity. They are believed to gestate for 14 months, but that is debated by some experts. Their pod size seems to vary, with most family groups comprised of 10-20 animals, but gatherings of 100 or more being common. The unicorn of the sea remains somewhat elusive, but it continues to gather fans interested in unraveling the mysteries of the species and protecting it from harm.

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