Everything but the Shark Week: Learning About the Mystical Narwhal
This week marks the 33rd anniversary of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. This annual summertime milestone is celebrated with documentaries, specials, articles, and social media posts, all honoring the mystery and majesty of one of the ocean’s most feared and voracious predators—the shark.
While there are many reasons humans find sharks fascinating, the ocean’s many other inhabitants should not be overlooked. In fact, countless sea creatures are yet to be named or even discovered.
According to Marine Bio, “an estimated 50-80% of all life on earth is found under the ocean surface and the oceans contain 99% of the living space on the planet. Less than 10% of that space has been explored by humans. 85% of the area and 90% of the volume constitute the dark, cold environment we call the deep sea. … Currently, scientists have named and successfully classified around 1.5 million species. It is estimated that there are as little as 2 million to as many as 50 million more species that have not yet been found and/or have been incorrectly classified.” So, there is proof that we still have a lot more left to learn the extent to what really lives beneath those seemingly calm ocean waters.
The narwhal is just one of the many strange and beautiful sea creatures that captivates people. This greatly understudied arctic whale leaves a lot of the imagination. Many believe that narwhals are fictional creatures plucked right out of children’s stories; glittery, sparkly, and magical cartoon-like figures. However, these mystical “unicorns of the sea” are very real.
While there is still a lot left to discover, see the resources below to learn what we do know about these elusive creatures.
Crack the Curious Case of the Narwhal with Some Fun Facts:
- Average lifespan is 50 years.
- Scientific name is “Monodon monoceros,” which means “the whale with one tooth and one horn”
- Males (and sometimes females) have a spiral tusk protruding from their head which makes them look like a cross between a whale and unicorn.
- Narwhal tusks are enlarged teeth, which can grow up to 10 feet.
- Tusks have 10 million nerve endings and may play a role in how males exert dominance.
- Every year a narwhal’s spiraling tusk grows another layer, incorporating variants of carbon and nitrogen called isotopes and some of the mercury a narwhal consumes
- Researchers have sliced open the tusks, ground parts of them into powder, and analyzed the samples’ isotope content. The results indicate where and what a narwhal might have eaten, as well as its exposure to mercury, a potent toxin whose accumulation affects animals’ immune and reproductive systems.
- Weigh up to 3,500 pounds and grow 18 feet in length (excluding tusk)
- Calves are approximately 175 pounds and 4 feet in length at birth
- Swim at speeds of 3-9 miles per hour, sometimes upside down. Researchers are not sure why.
- Change color as they age. Newborns are a blue-gray, juveniles are blue-black, and adults are a mottled gray. Old narwhals are nearly all white.
- Spend their lives in the Arctic waters of Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia.
- Communicate using whistles, moans, and clicks.
- Spend 2/3 of their times beneath the ocean’s surface going on deep dives.
- Cracks in the ice allow them to breathe when needed, especially after dives, which can be up to a mile and a half deep.
- They travel in pods ranging from two to twenty-five members.
- Predators of the narwhal are humans, walruses, killer whales, Greenland sharks, polar bears.
- Inuit communities use narwhal as a resource. Narwhal blubber and oil was used for lighting, heating and cooking. Narwhal skin provided Vitamin C and tusks were originally used as the tips of spears or harpoons.
- Due to the increasing negative effects of climate change and pollution caused by new shipping, development, and noise in their natural habitat, narwhals face an uncertain future.
Dive Deeper into the Narwhal’s Nest:
The above facts were drawn from several books available in the Library’s collection.
- Narwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World (Todd McLeish)
- Guide to Marine Mammals of the World (National Audubon Society, Pieter A. Folkens, and Randall R. Reeves)
- “Narwhal Record” (Susan Cosier)
- “A Curious Twist,” David Attenborough’s Natural Curiosities, Series 1, Episode 4. (Academic Video Online and Stephen Dunleavy)
- “Narwhals,” Nat Geo Wild: World’s Weirdest.
- “Narwhal Sounds (Monodon monoceros),” Discovery of Sound in the Sea.
- Moby Dick (Herman Melville)
- Narwhal and Jelly: Unicorn of the Sea. (Ben Clanton)
- “Narwhals: Unicorns of the Sea?” Brains On! Science Podcast for Kids.
- “Chasing The Arctic Unicorn” Special Series presented by NPR (2009)
- “Narwhals: Unicorns of the Sea,” Episode 64, All Creatures Podcast.
- “The Unicorn of the Sea,” The Unicorn Found. (Brown University)
- “Monodon monoceros: Narwhal,” (A. Dunford, Animal Diversity Web.)
- Breaking the Ice: International Trade in Narwhals, in the Context of a Changing Arctic (Tanya Shadbolt, Ernest W.T. Cooper, and Peter J. Ewins)
- “Narwhal,” Victorian Popular Culture (Adam Matthew. Digital). Slide from the The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum.
- “Monodon Monoceros,” Dr. Kristin Laidre, Polar Science Center, UW NOAA/OAR/OER, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Regina Duffy is a Communication and Marketing Program Manager at Falvey Memorial Library.
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