COMMON NAME: narwhal, unicorn whale
KINGDOM: Animalia
PHYLUM: Chordata
CLASS: Mammalia
ORDER: Cetacea
SUBORDER: Odontoceti
FAMILY: Monodontidae
GENUS SPECIES: Monodon ("one tooth") monoceros ("one horn")


DESCRIPTION: Narwhals are perhaps best known for their tusks-they are the only whales that have them. The tusk is an extremely elongated, hollow tooth, which always spirals counter-clockwise from the left side of the skull. It can measure 2.5-2.7 m long (8-9 ft.). Most narwhals have just one tusk, but narwhals with two tusks have been reported. Almost exclusively seen in males, there are only scattered reports of females developing a tusk. Narwhals have no other visible teeth in their jaws. Like the beluga whales, narwhals lack a dorsal fin and instead have a dorsal ridge. Mature narwhals tend to have a black and white spotted coloration the dorsal region of their body, while older narwhals may be almost completely white. Narwhal calves typically are a blotchy gray.
MALE Males tend to grow larger than females
SIZE: Newborn calves average 1.6 m (5.25 ft.) in length
MALE Minus the tusk, adult male narwhals measure up to 5 m (16.1 ft.) long
FEMALE Females are smaller, with a size up to 4 m (13 ft.) in length
WEIGHT: At birth, calves can weigh as much as 80 kg (176 lb.)
MALE Mature males weigh up to 1,600 kg (3,200 lb.)
FEMALE Adult females can reach a weight of up to 900 kg (2,000 lb.)
DIET: Usually dive deep to feed upon benthic fish, shrimp and squid, also eat pelagic fish such as arctic cod
GESTATION: 14-15 months
ESTRAL PERIOD Throughout the winter and spring with a peak in April
NURSING DURATION At least 12 months
MALE 8-9 years
FEMALE 4-7 years
LIFE SPAN: 25 or more years
RANGE: Range throughout the Arctic Sea and the northeastern and northwestern Atlantic
HABITAT: The migrations of narwhals closely follow the movement of loose pack ice
STATUS: IUCN Data Deficient
CITES Appendix III (Denmark and Canada), Appendix I elsewhere in its range
USFWS Not listed


1. Narwhals are toothed whales in the family Monodontidae, which they share with just one other species - the beluga whale.
2. Some theorize that males "joust" with their tusks or use them to poke their way through ice floes or even to skewer prey. These theories are unlikely. If the tusk were damaged, it could lead to severe infections and death for the narwhal. The tusk probably serves as a secondary sexual characteristic for males, indicating which males are older and more mature.
3. Contrary to common belief, narwhals do not spear fish with their tusks, but instead suck prey into their mouth and then swallow it whole.
4. Narwhals travel farther north than perhaps any other whale species. They are well adapted for life in frigid water, with blubber accounting for up to 35% of their body weight for insulation.


Killer whales and Greenland sharks preyed upon narwhals, but the main enemy of narwhals is man. Since some believe their tusks possess almost magical healing and aphrodisiac properties, they are still illegally hunted today. As with other whales, both national and international laws protect narwhals.


Jefferson, T.J. Leatherwood, S. and M.A. Webber. FAO Species Identification Guide. Marine Mammals of the World. Rome. FAO, 1993.

Leatherwood, Stephen, and Reeves, Randall R. The Sierra Club Handbook of Whales and Dolphins. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1983.

Nowak, Ronald M. (ed.). Walker's Mammals of the World. Vol. II. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Parker, S. (ed.). Grizmek's Encyclopedia of Mammals. Vol. IV. New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Co., 1990.

Reeves, R. R., Stewart, B.S., Clapman, P.J., and J.A. Powell (Peter Folkens illustrator). National Audubon Society: Guide to Marine Mammals of the World. New York: Random House, 2002.