Creature feature


Sydnie Barrett

The narwhal’s official scientific name is Monodon monoceros, deriving from the Greek words for “one horn” or “one tooth.” However, the name “narwhal” is derived from something completely different. The name “narwhal” derives from two Icelandic words, “nar” and “hvalr,” that together mean “corpse whale”- a nod to its pale color.

Lonzo Montgomery, Public Relations & Social Media Manager

Back again and still under the sea, we have a brand new creature to feature. This time, the creature in the spotlight is none other than the unicorn of the sea, the narwhal.

Narwhals are mammals that live in the Arctic Ocean and stay in pods of two to 10. However, larger pods in the hundreds or thousands have been observed.

Their diet consists of medium to large Arctic fish such as Arctic and polar cod, shrimp, and squid. 

Narwhals have a unique color and appearance. They are mottled gray, meaning they have irregular spots, or smears of color, that are darker on top than on their undersides. It is due to this coloring that we get the name “narwhal” from the Icelandic words “nar” meaning corpse and “hvalr” meaning whale.

They are not born with their unique spotted appearance, they grow into it. Babies, or calves, are born a brown-gray color all over and develop their mottling as they grow up. They can live for up to 50 years. Despite being on the smaller side for whales, narwhals can be anywhere from 13-18 feet long and 1700-3500 pounds with males tending to be bigger and heavier than females.

When people think of narwhals, the first thing that usually comes to mind is their large tusks.

Those tusks however are not horns, rather they are teeth. Well, one tooth. Narwhals have two teeth in their upper jaw, but in males at about age 2 or 3 the left tooth starts to grow and protrude from its head while the right remains vestigial in the jaw bone. 

Because of this, males typically have tusks and females don’t, but on rare occasions females with tusks and males with two tusks have been observed and documented. 

The tusks of males aren’t just used to coin cool nicknames; they are also theorized to be used to determine social rank and attract females. They might also use them to sense differences in the water they swim in to determine whether they are in their seasonal waters or not.

Narwhals are some of the deepest diving marine mammals. They also change the depths to which they dive during the different seasons.

In the summer, they dive between 90 and 900 meters but will spend most of their time between the surface and 150 feet. During the fall, the depths and lengths of their dives increase, meaning they dive deeper for longer as winter approaches.

During the winter is when they do their deepest and longest dives. For six months, they dive to at least 2400 feet between 18 and 25 times each day.  

The deep diving doesn’t stop there though. Half of their winter dives will be up to 4500 feet. They spend at least 25 minutes during these dives, including swimming down and back as well as time spent at the bottom.

Because narwhals spend a lot of their time, more than three hours a day, at depths greater than 2400 feet, they have adapted to be able to handle the intense amount of pressure.

To withstand the 2200 PSI of pressure on their dives, they have adapted to have a flexible rib cage that shrinks as the water pressure increases. They also have an increased amount of myoglobin, a molecule that binds oxygen. Because of this, they can carry up to 70 liters of oxygen in their lungs, blood and muscles. 

They are also built for endurance swimming. They can save oxygen during dives by restricting blood flow to non-vital organs and body parts. Also, their bodies are streamlined to glide through the water helping them get to the bottom faster. 

Diving habits are not the only thing that depends on seasons. For example, female narwhals only give birth to one calf in the summer months. Those calves then nurse for about a year. 

These creatures, majestic and legendary in their own right, have inspired not only the myth of the unicorn but also have inspired songs. One of which, and perhaps the most famous, is “Narwhals” by Jonti Pickins, crediting them for the invention of the shish kebab and being awesome in general.