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The Narwhal, a "real" legend!

If you mention the Narwhal, you will be surprised by people's reactions. Some may think that the Narwhal has been extinct for years; others will consider it to be a legendary animal just like the unicorn. Finally, part of the group will say the Narwhal is in fact alive and well. In a way, you may consider the Narwhal a "real" legend!


Why is the Narwhal considered to be a legendary animal? Well, some compare it to the unicorn as they both have a tusk or a horn protruding from their skull. Both also have been used in legends and magical bedtime stories. Although Narwhals are not observed as frequently as grey whales and other types of whales, they do still exist. In fact, their population worldwide has been estimated to 50,000 individuals. You cannot say the same about unicorns.

The Narwhal belongs to the order of Cetacea. Its family name is Monodontidae. This family's nickname is white whale, which the Narwhal shares with the Beluga. Its genus is Monodon and it belongs to the Monodon monoceros species. It is also considered to be a toothed whale.

Although, Monoceros means "one tusk", 1 in 500 males grow two tusks. It is rare to find a female with a tusk and even rarer to find a female with two tusks. In fact, only one female Narwhal has ever been recorded having two tusks. Unlike elephants, if a tusk breaks off, it will not grow another one but if it is chipped or partially broken, it will repair itself to a certain extent.

The tusk is in fact a left side incisor that grows out of the left upper jaw. It can measure up to 3 meters (almost 10 feet) in length and weights up to 10 kg (22 lbs).

The purpose of the tusk has been changing over the years, according to various scientists. While the first scientists that have been observing Narwhals thought that Narwhals used their tusk to pierce the ice covering its natural habitat, others argued that it was used in < echolocation. Nowadays, scientists believe that the tusk is mostly used for showmanship and dominance during tusking sessions, in order to attract a mate.

What is tusking? It is when two males challenge each other by rubbing their tusk against the one belonging to their opponent. Recently, scientists have been studying the structure of the tusk more closely, even suggesting that it may in fact be a sensory organ capable of detecting the temperature, salinity, pressure and analyze the various components present in the water.

In fact, despite all these theories, the exact sensory purpose of the tusk has not been established yet. Other scientists even suggested that tusking is merely a clean up process of the tusk, such as brushing your teeth, to clear off encrustations.

The origin of the name Narwhal is actually Dutch, which also comes from the Danish word Narvhal, meaning "corpse". The Narwhal has also another nickname besides white whale, it is also called Moon whale. Moon whale, white whale and the meaning of their name referring to a corpse all refer to its color. In some parts of the world, the Narwhal is also considered to be a ream fish such as the Marlin and Swordfish.

Male Narwhals can weight up to 1600 kg (3500 lbs) and measure up to 7-8 meters (23-26 feet) in length. The female, on the other hand, is much smaller, weighting up to 1000 kg (2200 lbs). The Narwhal's body is pale with brown speckles although the head, neck and flippers' edge are almost black. Older Narwhals have brighter colors than younger individuals.

Narwhals feed mainly on various species of cod living underneath ice-capped areas. Their diet may also include various menu items such as squid, schooling pelagic fish, shrimp, red fish and halibut. At times, when food is not as plentiful in some areas, Narwhals are also known to feed on baby seals.

Narwhals usually travel in pods of 5 to 10 individuals, especially during the summer. They travel to the same coast every year, during the warm season. Narwhals are known as quick and active marine mammals. They are also deep divers that can descend at depths of 1,500 m (5,000 feet) at a speed of 2 meters per second for 8 to 10 minutes and stay down for about 2 minutes before returning to the surface.

The Narwhal belongs to the Arctic whale species. It rarely swims at a latitude inferior to 70N. Like the Beluga, it has been suggested in the past that the Narwhal may be related to the Irrawaddy dolphin.

The Narwhal is mostly present in the Atlantic and Russian areas of the Arctic. Some individuals have been recorded in the Northern part of Hudson Bay, in the Hudson Strait, in the Baffin Bay, off the East and Northern coast of Greenland as well as Eastern Russia (170).

The Northernmost point where Narwhal sightings have occurred is North of Franz Joseph Land at about 85N. It seems that populations of Narwhals are mainly located on fjords and inlets in Northern Canada and Western Greenland.

Narwhals are known to migrate close to shores in the summer and in ice-packed regions, away from shores when winter arrives, turning open water to ice. Their survival depends on leads and open holes in the ice to take a breath of fresh air, avoiding death by drowning.

The natural predators of the Narwhal are polar bears and killer whales. Inuit people have the right to hunt Narwhals legally since the Northern climate provides little amounts of nutritional sources rich in vitamins unless obtained through hunting seals, walruses and whales.

Out of respect for these animals, their liver is often eaten shortly after the killing of the animal. Such a tradition has been observed by the Inuit for years. While traditional harpooning is used in Greenland to hunt Narwhals while speed boats and rifles are used in Northern Canada. PETA and other groups are fighting against hunting Narwhals.

As mentioned earlier in this article, the Narwhal has been linked to legends for centuries. An example of this is the Inuit legend about the creation of the Narwhal. In this legend, people believe that a woman holding on to a harpoon fell into the ocean. While submerged, the woman was wrapped around a Beluga whale while still holding on to the harpoon, which created the Narwhal whale.

During the Medieval times, Europeans thought of the tusk to be the horn of the legendary unicorn. Viking and other traders originally from the Northern regions, traded the tusks for a lot of gold as they supposedly had a lot of magic powers. Cups were made from the tusks as it was believed that they would destroy the effect of a poison that was slipped into a drink.

During the 16th century, the Queen Elizabeth of England received a tusk for 10,000, the cost to purchase a castle, and she used it as a sceptre. The Explorers learned more about tusks and the Narwhals during their exploration of the New World.

In 1555, Olaus Magnus published the first drawing of the Narwhal, a fish-like creature with a horn protruding from its forehead. In 1577, Martin Frobisher corrected the position of the horn by stating that it was pointing forward.

The end of the legendary existence of the Narwhal happened in 1638 during a public lecture given by Danish zoologist Ole Wurm on the Narwhal tusk. It was believed that in the Jules Verne's novel: "Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea", the submarine called: "Nautilus" was shaped as one of the unclassified subspecies of the Narwhal.

Nowadays, you can see the representation of a Narwhal as part of the Nunavut Coat of Arms.

From a legend, it has become reality! The Narwhal, a "real" legend is not only part of a Canadian culture but has also its place into their legendary world. Through time and history, it has acquired its own reputation worldwide.


Although the Narwhal's conversation status is said to be of special concern due to data deficiency, let's ensure the survival of the Narwhal whale. After all, the uniqueness of this type of whale is certainly worth fighting for!


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