Where Do Narwhals Get Their Name From?
The name narwhal comes from the Old Norse words nar (corpse) and whal (whale). Narwhals were likely called “corpse whales” because of their pale, mottled coloring that made them look like drowned sailors! Sometimes also called “the Arctic unicorn,” narwhals are small whales (about 15-16 feet long) that live in the icy waters of the Atlantic and Russian areas of the Arctic Ocean, near Canada and Greenland.
Narwhals are most closely related to the beluga whale. Male narwhals feature a unique, defining physical characteristic: a long protrusion from the upper left jaw that looks like a tusk or a horn. The narwhal is a uniquely specialized Arctic predator. In winter, it feeds on benthic prey, mostly flatfish, under dense pack ice. During the summer, narwhals mostly eat Arctic cod and Greenland halibut, with other fish such as polar cod making up the remainder of their diet. Each year, they migrate from bays into the ocean as summer comes.
In the winter, the male narwhals occasionally dive up to 1,500 m (4,920 ft) in depth, with dives lasting up to 25 minutes. In fact, narwhals are known for making some of the deepest dives of any marine mammal. Narwhals have been known to dive to depths of over 2,500 feet over 15 times per day, with some dives reaching as deep as almost 5,000 feet! Narwhals, like most toothed whales, communicate with “clicks”, “whistles”, and “knocks”. Narwhals can live up to 50 years. They are often killed by suffocation when the sea ice freezes over. Another cause of fatality, specifically among young whales, is starvation.
The current population of the narwhal is about 75,000, so narwhals qualify for Near Threatened under the criterion of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Narwhals have been harvested for over a thousand years by Inuit people in northern Canada and Greenland for meat and ivory, and a regulated subsistence hunt continues. Known for their ability to use all parts of the narwhal, the Inuit peoples eat narwhal meat, harvest their tusks to use as tools, and even eat their skin, which is a good source of vitamin C.
In medieval times, people believed that narwhal tusks were the horns of the legendary unicorn. As these horns were considered to have magic powers, such as neutralising poison and curing melancholia, Vikings and other northern traders were able to sell them for many times their weight in gold.
The tusks were used to make cups that were thought to negate any poison that may have been slipped into the drink. In 1555, Olaus Magnus published a drawing of a fish-like creature with a horn on its forehead, correctly identifying it as a “Narwal”. During the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I received a carved and bejewelled narwhal tusk worth 10,000 British Pounds—the cost of a castle (approximately £1.5–2.5 million in 2007, using the retail price index from Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who proposed the tusk was from a “sea-unicorne”. The tusks were staples of the cabinet of curiosities. European knowledge of the tusk’s origin developed gradually during the Age of Exploration, as explorers and naturalists began to visit Arctic regions themselves.
In Inuit legend, the narwhal’s tusk was created when a woman with a harpoon rope tied around her waist was dragged into the ocean after the harpoon had struck a large narwhal. She was transformed into a narwhal, and her hair, which she was wearing in a twisted knot, became the characteristic spiral narwhal tusk. In reality, though, a narwhal tusk is not a unicorn horn. In fact, it’s not a horn at all. Would you believe it’s a tooth? It’s true!
Male narwhals have a left incisor tooth that grows outward straight through the left side of the upper jaw. It can grow up to almost 10 feet in length with a distinctive spiral shape. Female narwhals also have a similar tusk that’s much shorter and straighter. A narwhal’s right incisor is normally small, but occasionally it also grows out. These “two-horned” narwhals are very rare. Scientists aren’t completely sure what purpose narwhal tusks serve. At one time, people believed they might be used to break ice or spear fish. Further study has shown, though, that they’re most likely used in mating rituals to impress females or battle rival males.