© Paul Nicklen / National Geographic Creative / WWF-Canada Male narwhals caress one another with their tusks in Nunavut, Canada.

Narwhal

Narwhals (Monodon monoceros) are animals of myths and legends. But the threats they face due to a rapidly changing climate are very real.

About Narwhals

Nicknamed the “unicorn of the sea” and long shrouded in mystery, the narwhal is famous for its long ivory tusk, which spirals counterclockwise and can reach up to nine feet (2.5 meters) in length. Males predominantly have a tusk, and some have two.  The tusk — once thought to have magical properties — is actually an enlarged left canine. Narwhals also have a right canine which stays embedded in their mouths. Ongoing research suggests the tusk is used for impressing mates and stunning fish before eating them, and it even has some remarkable sensory capabilities! There are millions of nerve endings in each tusk that may help this species locate food.

Over the summer months, the Canadian Arctic is home to about 90 per cent of the world’s narwhal population. They congregate from Northern Hudson Bay to Ellesmere Island to feed and rear their young. In the winter, the majority of the world’s narwhals travel to Baffin Bay-Davis Strait between Canada and Greenland. There, they spend up to seven months under almost complete sea-ice cover.

Narwhal Facts

Two narwhal surfacing to breathe in Lancaster Sound, Nunavut, Canada

Narwhal

Special Concern

Scientific Name:

Monodon monoceros

Inuktitut Name:

Tuugaalik

Status:

Special Concern

Special Concern
A wildlife species that may become threatened or endangered because of a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats.

Adult Weight:

Up to 1,900 kg

Length:

Up to 5.4 m

Diet:

Greenland halibut, Arctic and polar cod, squid and shrimp

Population:

Approx. 170,000 worldwide

Habitat:

Arctic waters of Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia

Did You Know?

Narwhal or Monodon monceros in Latin means “one-tooth-one-horn.” In Inuktitut, narwhal is Qilalugaq gernertaq which translates to “the one point to the sky.”

Narwhal movement and distribution patterns in the Arctic

Narwhal movement and distribution patterns in the Arctic

Why are Narwhals Important?

Whales, like the narwhal, are near the top of the food chain and have an important role in the overall health of the marine environment. Narwhals are also culturally important to Indigenous communities in the Arctic. Like polar bears, the narwhal depends on sea ice for its existence and can be directly impacted by climate change. Living in remote and inaccessible parts of the high Arctic, no other ice whale is as sensitive to the effects of climate change. As the Arctic warms at an unprecedented rate, narwhals will be confronted with changes to their migratory routes, new predators and noise pollution from shipping and development.

The narwhal is also an iconic and culturally significant species in the North. Inuit communities have long lived alongside narwhal and rely on the mammal as a source of food. Narwhals also feature prominently in Inuit stories and artwork.

© Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada A group of narwhals

Threats

Climate change
The Canadian Arctic is warming at three times the rate of the rest of the world, and that puts ice-dependent species like the narwhal at risk of decline. A narwhal’s entire life is connected to sea ice, both as a place to feed and a place to take refuge. The slow swimming whales rely on sea ice as a place to hide from predators like killer whales.

Shipping and underwater noise
Narwhals have been known to move away from their calving and feeding areas when large ships move in. Since whales depend on sound to communicate, any interference by noise pollution can negatively affect their ability to find food and mates, navigate, avoid predators and take care of their young.

Oil and gas development
Vessels that support oil and gas development mean increased shipping in sensitive areas. Increased shipping means more underwater noise, more pollution and a greater risk of oil and fuel spills.

What WWF-Canada is Doing

In a changing Arctic, it’s critical that we provide safe havens for narwhal. Through our Arctic Species Conservation Fund, we support narwhal tagging and research in Nunavut. We also support the development of non-invasive research techniques, including the use of aerial drones and underwater microphones. This work helps us learn more about distribution, behaviour and the impacts of underwater noise on narwhals, inspiring actions that safeguard the species.

We also advocate for a network of marine protected areas where human activities, such as oil and gas development, are not permitted.

© naturepl.com / Eric Baccega / WWF Narwhal crossing tusks above water surface. Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada

What You Can Do

With increases in human activity and a warming climate, narwhal are facing multiple threats. With your gift, you can help protect some of the world’s most vulnerable species and the habitats they call home.

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