Episode 98 – Narwhal: The Sea Unicorn

“And today we’re talking about a whale with a rostrum for adventure! But more on that later!”

Way high up in the frigid arctic waters swims what many would consider to be a mythical creature: a unicorn. No, not a white horse with a horn sticking out of its head, but a whale with a similar facial characteristic. But what is this horn used for? Fighting, hunting, swimming? You’ll just have to listen and find out here on Life Death and Taxonomy.


  • Narwhals are mid-sized whales, which means they don’t have third row seating but they offer more fuel efficiency and maneuverability than the larger models.
  • They are closely related to belugas, and are around the same size.
  • Narwhals come in mottled patterns of black, brown, and white. That means the are basically cookies and cream style.
  • They start out darker and get lighter as they age like a kickball you forgot to bring in all summer.
  • Speaking of summer, narwhals spend theirs in of the coasts of arctic land masses when the ice recedes. In the Winter the return to deeper waters under thick ice.
  • Their favorite spot seems to be the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

Measure Up

Welcome to Measure Up, leading candidate for best part of the show, a title to be officially determined by you on December 3rd on Twitter and Facebook. This is the part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words measure up into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. We have no new intros this week, so that means I get to play an animal sound and Carlos will guess what it is! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIMwLtvQPa0

Length (Face to tail)

  • 3.95 to 5.5 m (13 to 18 ft)
  • Average: Males are typically around 13.5 feet
  • How many narwhals go into the elevation at Mount Odin (2,143 m (7,031 ft)) on Baffin Island in the Arctic archipelago?
  • Hint: Many mountains on the island have norse names including Mount Asgard and Mount Thor. Mount Asgard is over 6,000  ft.
  • 521 whales

Diving depth

  • Narwhals are deep divers that go as low as 800 metres (2,620 feet).
  • How many narwhal dive depths go into the deepest dive depth for a mammal (2,992 m (9,816 feet)). 
  • Hint: The deepest divers are Beaked Whales, which are extremely rare and not well known. They are extensively hunted for commercial purposes in Japanese waters. 
  • 3.7 depths

Fast facts

  • Narwhals have no dorsal fin. Some believe this might be because they’ve adapted to swimming just below sea ice.
  • Like the beluga, they have jointed vertebrates like you, me, dogs, pine martens, and mighty joe young and unlike other whales. I theorize this helps them maneuver in narrow ice channels, but I can’t confirm that. 
  • Narwhals role in crews of up to five to ten under normal circumstances. Sometimes they’ll be in groups as large as 20.
  • Groups may be mixed, or they can contain females with calves, or only adult males.
  • They eat arctic fish like polar and Atlantic cod, halibut, cuttlefish, shrimp, and armhook squid. And they rarely deviate from those food sources.
  • They are among the deepest diving marine mammal on record with dives as low as 800 metres (2,620 feet). They do it up to 15 times a day. 
  • They live up to 50 years. Common causes of death are suffocation when trapped under ice and predation of calves by orcas.

Major Fact: The Tooth of Time

  • The narwhal, as we mentioned, is perhaps best known for its iconic giant horn that sticks out of its head.
    • Kinda like a “unicorn of the sea”
    • In fact, medieval Europeans thought they were actually unicorn horns when traders from the north would bring them down,
    • They would sell for fortunes. Queen Elizabeth I was given a horn that was worth 10,000 pounds sterling, or $2 million in 2007 dollars, the price of a small castle in her day.
    • People thought these horns had magic powers and could be used to cure diseases and negate all poisons
  • Well, obviously it does none of those things. In fact, it isn’t even a horn.
    • It’s actually an ivory tooth!
    • The upper left canine of a narwhal will grow out through the whale’s upper lip and straight out in an ice cream swirl shape up to 10 feet long!
    • The tusk is also hollow and can weigh up to 22 lbs
    • It is mainly present in males, though 15% of females grow a smaller version of the tusk. Also, all of the whale’s other teeth are vestigial, meaning useless. Like an appendix, tonsils, Charlie Brown, or using your turn signal in South Florida—completely useless.
      • They really give Charlie Brown the business in that Christmas special! 
    • Also, one in every 500 males will have two tusks and only one female has ever been recorded with two.
  • It is only present in males, yet scientists are still not 100% sure what they are used for or why the whales adapted this way.
    • There are the obvious answers, like being used for ritual combat or sexual selection among females. But while males cross tusks at times, (known as “tusking”) it’s not for mating rights or territory, as we’ll see in a bit. And females grow tusks as well, so it’s not necessarily for sexual selection.
    • They’ve also speculated that the tusk is for hunting, but spearing a fish on the end of the tusk isn’t going to do a narwhal much good. (How can it get the fish into its mouth?).
      • A drone video in 2016 showed a grind of narwhals smacking fish with their tusks to stun them before eating (Ninevite).
      • They also feed by sucking the fish up into their mouths like vacuum cleaners since their teeth are useless.
    • What we do know is that it serves as a sensory organ with millions of nerve endings (which probably makes fish smacking pretty painful). With it, a narwhal can collect detailed information about the water around it. 
      • So when males rub tusks, they may actually be communicating characteristics about the water they just passed through.
      • “Hey Ted, I just swam through some choice oxygenated water a few days ago. Let my crazy elongated tooth give you the deets.”
  • Lastly, there is an Inuit legend that a woman with a spiral hairdo harpooned an untusked narwhal, but the rope was attached to her waist and she was dragged into the sea where she transformed into the first tusked narwhal.


So be gregarious, don’t go into the arctic waters without a warm coat of blubber, and use your tusks for oceanic communication, not war, like the narwhal in LDT.