The narwhal, Monodon monoceros, is a small whale found in Arctic waters off Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia.
The origin of its name lies in Viking times, and its name in Old Norse (from which the modern name descends) meant roughly “corpse whale,” referring to its greyish white color.
Male narwhals have a most unusual feature, a long spiral tusk, which can grow to ten feet long. Tusks are usual on male narwhals, but females sometimes have them. The tusk is actually an elongated tooth. Recent research has found that the narwhal uses its tusk to stun fish, which then are easily eaten. The tusk may also be used in mating and in searching for food—it’s full of sensors.
These small whales can live for 50 years. They typically weigh 800 to 1,500 kg and range up to almost 6m in length. They can dive as deep as a mile. The tusk has thousands of nerve cells, so narwhals may use their tusks to probe the sea’s bottom sediment for food.
The tusk mystified people for centuries. Some thought it was evidence that unicorns existed. The tusks were rare and became quite valuable. Queen Elizabeth I is said to have bought a tusk and kept it with the crown jewels. The tusk was sometimes used as ivory, for carving and decoration.
The narwhal population is currently a healthy 80,000 or so, with estimates up to 170,000 but could be endangered by the development of Arctic resources and new shipping routes.
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