Unicorn of the Sea

Posted by Peg Boettcher at

We walked on the moon. We cloned a living animal. We even discovered the Titanic where it came to rest in the dark, icy heart of the sea. But we still don't know exactly what a narwhal's tusk is for. Among all the earth's mysteries, the secret of the narwhal's tusk is one of Nature's best-kept.
Narwhals gathering in an opening in the arctic ice

What we do know isn't much. The narwhal is a large, pale-colored porpoise found across the frozen cap of the world, in waters and rivers near the Arctic coast. (I use the word "found" loosely, as the creatures are notoriously hard to locate. Even full-time narwhal researchers expect to hunker down for weeks between sightings.)

Baby narwhals are born dark and gradually become lighter as they age, with elderly males eventually bleaching to the snowy whiteness of an ice berg. At full growth, a narwhal achieves the length of a Volkswagen van. They usually hang out in small groups of 5 to 10 animals, but at certain times these "pods" can jam together to form mobs of 1000. They snack on halibut and cod, sucking those bottom-feeders up like marine vacuum cleaners, because narwhals have only two teeth.

Yup, you read that right. Narwhals have only two teeth, neither of which is used for chewing.

What is the point, you ask? Well, those teeth have better things to do. At least one of them is destined (in males) to grow into a formidable, sword-like tusk that will ultimately project from the male narwhal's upper lip a prodigious 8.8 feet. The other tooth usually stays below the surface of the whale's jaw. In females, both teeth remain below the surface.

Old illustration of narwhalMany scientists believe the tusk takes center stage during mating rituals, serving the same showy purpose as a peacock's tail. They theorize that it might even be employed, like a bull elephant's tusks, to do battle with rivals. But it's hard to tell if the agitated scraping and bobbing seen in some groups is fighting, or simply bad tempered shoving caused by too many narwhals in a too-small break in the ice pack. (Try going about your daily routine with a yard-long cardboard tube taped to your forehead, and you'll see how pleasant you feel at the end of the day!) Some scientists have floated the idea that the tusk is a giant sensor of some sort, perhaps used to detect temperature variations in the frigid waters of their home or radio waves from alien spaceships. (Kidding about that last part.)

Rare narwhal skull with two tusksInuit people are the only people in the world authorized to hunt the whale, which has been given the status of near-threatened. The cetaceans are prized not only for their long tusks but for their tasty skin, an important source of vitamin C in the traditional Arctic diet.

A freak skull
Once in a great while during adolescence a male narwhal's skull will go a little haywire and grow a second tusk. As if displaying 8 feet of solid ivory isn't enough! Ye Olde Curiosity Shop is privileged to have in its collection an example of this rare occurrence. For comparison, it also has a straight-up version... taller than most men. You can see where the legend of the unicorn arose.

Peg Boettcher has been wrangling curios and working for Ye Olde Curiosity Shop since 2004.

Narwhal FAQ
Video of narwhals in the wild:
• An exhaustive exploration – with loads of photographs – of the evolution and function of the narwhal’s tusk.

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