Meet the narwhal, ‘unicorn of the sea’ | 1/22/2020 | EarthSky Voices
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Over 100,000 narwhals swim the Earth’s Arctic waters. Image via Kristin Laidre.

Narwhals are often called the unicorns of the sea. The long tusk of the male narwhal sets these whales apart, but it’s not the only thing that makes Monodon monoceros among the most intriguing and mysterious marine mammals.

Cetacean - Family - Whales - Narwhals - Arctic

A deep-diving cetacean in the odontocete family (which means “toothed whales”), narwhals live in cold Arctic and sub-Arctic waters. They’re highly adapted to living in areas almost completely covered with sea ice. Narwhals are among the only whales that live in areas with such dense sea ice cover for up to six months each winter.

As a scientist who studies animal ecology in the Arctic, I know firsthand that seeing a narwhal in the wild is a special experience. They usually travel in pods and can be quite sneaky. When they pass by, you may only see a small sliver of their mottled black and white skin above the water when they surface to breathe. No wonder glimpses of these whales and their unique tusks have fueled myths for centuries.

Whales - Narwhal - Teeth - Mouth - Male

Unlike all other toothed whales, the narwhal actually has no teeth in its mouth. Instead, the male develops a long straight tooth, called a tusk, that protrudes 6 to 10 feet out of his upper left jaw. A long tusk on an adult male can be more than half the usual total body length of about 16 feet. The tooth grows in a counterclockwise spiral – nature’s only spiral tooth.

Nature’s only spiral tooth is found in the male narwhal. Image via Andrea Izzotti/

Tusk - Narwhals - Female - Tusk - Male

The tusk is essentially unique to male narwhals. Very rarely, a female will grow a tusk, or even more rarely a male narwhal will grow two. Tusks exported from the Arctic, perhaps by the Vikings, reached Europe, the Mediterranean and even...
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