For some strange reason, one of my favorite parts of the classic movie Elf (with Will Ferrell) is the brief scene involving Mr. Narwhal. I can't explain it, but it cracks me up every time (Bye, Buddy. I hope you find your dad.).
Here's a question for you... Do you remember the exact moment you learned that narwhals are actually real? I'm being serious here. I had seen pictures of them when I was a kid, but I just assumed they were some kind of mythical beast, like the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or the crazy monsters they used to draw in the oceans on those really old maps.
Perhaps learning that narwhals are real is part of how I became so fascinated with animals.
What the heck is a Narwhal?
Narwhals are toothed whales. Toothed whales are those that... well, they have teeth. The group includes dolphins, porpoises, beluga whales, killer whales, sperm whales, and the beaked whales.
Hmm... yes, narwhals are in the toothed whale group, but oddly they only have a few teeth, and they don't chew with those teeth at all. They gum their prey.
By the way... if you were a whale, and you were NOT a toothed whale, you would be a baleen whale. All whales fit into one or the other of these two major groups.
The word narwhal literally means corpse whale. Nar is an Old Norse word that means corpse. Narwhals got this name because their skin is usually mottled gray (like the skin of a drowned sailer), and because in the summer these whales often float at the surface without moving (again, like a drowned sailer).
Often called unicorns of the sea, Narwhals are unique among whales because the males possess a very long tusk, which looks like a unicorn horn. Well, actually that's a silly comparison, because unicorns don't exist. It would be better to say that narwhal tusks look similar to the way artists typical draw horns of the mythical unicorn. Perhaps because people came up with the idea of unicorns after observing narwhals.
Amazing facts about Narwhals
Let's talk about this crazy tusk first. As I stated above, usually only male narwhals have these. The tusk is actually a modified canine tooth (remember I said they only have a few teeth?). It grows out from the left side of the upper jaw, right through the lip, and it forms a spiral as it grows.
These tusks never stop growing (well, until the whale dies, that is), and they can get up to 10 feet (3.1 m) long! For comparison, male narwhals, not including the tusk, are about 15 feet (4.5 m) long and weigh 3,500 pounds (1,590 kg). Females are slightly smaller.
Usually, it's only the left canine tooth that grows into a tusk. But in one of about every 500 male narwhals the right canine grows out as well. So there are actually narwhals that have TWO tusks. Also, about 15% of the females grow a tusk (although only one female has ever been found that had two tusks... that female was collected in 1684).
Check out this narwhal skull and tusk:
What in the heck is the function of this bizarre tusk? That's a bit of a mystery. Scientists have come up with plenty of explanations. One idea is that the tusk is used as a weapon against predators (polar bears, orcas, and sharks) and to spear fish for their dinner. Or maybe they use it to dig for prey on the ocean floor. Another idea is that they use it to puncture the surface ice to make breathing holes (narwhals live mainly in far north arctic waters). Some scientists have suggested the tusk is an acoustic organ (tusks are hollow, and narwhals communicate with clicks and whistles).
One thing is for sure. The tusk is not essential for survival—most females don't have them, and the females live longer than the males.
The leading theory is that the tusk is for sexual selection. Males are often seen with their heads out of the water, hitting and rubbing their tusks together as if they are sword fighting. This is called tusking, and scientists have often assumed this is a way for males to establish dominance.
But wait! There's more to this mystery. A 2014 study found that narwhal tusks contain millions of highly sensitive nerve endings. These nerve endings are particularly suited to detect ocean water conditions. So, scientists have suggested that when males rub their tusks together, they are actually exchanging information about the nature of the water they have recently traveled through. Whoa... that's cool.
And there's more! In 2016, drones were used to film narwhals, and for the first time ever they were observed using their tusks to stun fish (arctic cod), which they would then eat.
Check out this video showing this feeding behavior.
My guess is that narwhal tusks are multi-purpose tools. Most likely, they are used for sexual selection, but they are apparently useful for a variety of other tasks. They are the Swiss Army knives of the whale world!
One more rather odd thing regarding a narwhal tusk. On November 29 there was a tragic and violent attack that concluded on London Bridge. A knife-wielding man began attacking innocent people at a prison rehabilitation program. Darryn Frost, a civil servant in Britain’s Justice Ministry, grabbed a long narwhal tusk from the wall in Fishmonger's Hall (beside London Bridge), and confronted the man, eventually (along with several others), chasing the man onto London Bridge and subduing him (the attacker was then shot). Anyway, this is the only instance that I know of in which someone used a narwhal tusk as a weapon. Frost is now considered a hero.
The narwhal's closest relative is the beluga whale (which looks like a white narwhal without a tusk). They are so closely related, in fact, that they sometimes mate and produce hybrid offspring. This is very rare, though. In Greenland in 1990, an unusual whale skull was found. The skull was unlike any scientists had seen before, but it had characteristics of both the beluga whale and the narwhal. Finally, in 2019, DNA analysis proved that the skull was indeed a hybrid between the two species.
Below is a 1920 illustration of the two species.
Fortunately, although narwhals are very secretive and difficult to find, they are designated as a species of "least concern" (not threatened or endangered). Scientists estimate the population to be about 125,000.
However, arctic sea ice is melting at an alarming rate, which will result in more ships moving through the waters where narwhals live. Unfortunately, narwhals are vulnerable to ships. They become extremely frightened and stressed when ships pass by. Also, their habit of lying motionless at the surface results in collisions. But for now, they seem to be doing okay.
So, the Narwhal deserves a place in the L.A.H.O.F.
(Lollapalooza Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The first documented use of the word lollapalooza was in 1904. It is considered an Americanism, and it refers to something or someone truly remarkable. Oddly, no one seems to know exactly how the word originated. Lollapalooza is also the name of a popular annual music festival. How did the festival get this name? Legend has it that Perry Farrell (of the band Jane's Addiction) named the festival Lollapalooza in 1991 after hearing the word in a Three Stooges short film. So, lollapalooza is another way to say awesome!
Everyone needs a creative outlet. That's why I write.