Unicorns of the sea
It’s only recently that research has shown that the narwhal tusk has some remarkable sensory capabilities – with millions of nerve endings in there, perhaps to help in locating food. It may also play a role in male dominance.
Inuktitut Name: Tuugaalik
Adult Weight: Males up to 1900 kg; females up to 1550 kg
Adult Length: Males up to 5.4 m, plus tusk up to 3 m; females up to 4.9 m
Population: Probably more than 70,000 worldwide
Status: IUCN: Near Threatened; Canada: Special Concern
Generation time: Possibly 15-20 years, with females maturing at 5-8 years and males at 12-16 years
Why is the narwhal 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. Like polar bears, narwhals depend on sea ice and can be directly impacted by rapid climate change – in fact, studies have shown that they are one of the species most vulnerable to the ecological effects of climate change because of increased predation by killer whales, and changes to their prey base.
Narwhals are also culturally important to indigenous communities in the Arctic, as a source of food. For example, the skin of the narwhal, called "maktaq" by the Inuit of Canada and Greenland, is eaten both raw and boiled, and is a significant source of vitamin C. Today, narwhal tusks are still an essential source of income for Inuit hunters and carvers in some communities.
Inuit organizations, scientists, governments, and environmental organizations like WWF are working together to ensure that narwhal hunting is carried out in a sustainable way, and that all new industrial activities are planned carefully, so that populations remain healthy in a rapidly changing marine ecosystem.
Life under the iceThe narwhal is strongly associated with sea ice, and lives entirely in the Arctic waters of Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia. Because it evolved without a dorsal fin, the narwhal moves easily under the sea ice, and seeks out cracks in the ice to breathe. Narwhals are migratory, and each winter the majority of the world’s narwhals travel to the Baffin Bay-Davis Strait area (between Canada and western Greenland), where they spend up to seven months under almost complete sea ice cover. Cracks in the ice allow them to breathe, after dives to feed, which can be over 1.5 kilometres deep.
What do narwhals eat?The narwhal diet is usually made up of Greenland halibut, arctic and polar cod, squid, and shrimp species. In the Baffin Bay ecosystem, the main annual feeding activity is on the wintering grounds in deep water, with Greenland Halibut the preferred prey.
The tuskThe tusk is a modified tooth in the upper left side of the jaw. Male narwhals commonly have a single tusk though a few may also have two tusks, or no tusk at all. Up to 2% of females have an erupted tusk.
The work of Dr. Martin Nweeia and science and Inuit colleagues involved with the Narwhal Tusk Research project has unearthed important new evidence about the tusk’s functions.
Narwhal trackerIn August 2011 and 2012, representatives from WWF Canada worked with a field crew to fit satellite tags to a number of narwhals off North Baffin Island, Canada.
Narwhals evolved without a dorsal fin, allowing them to swim easily in areas of heavy sea ice where they are safe from predatory killer whales. Narwhals may also have less access to their preferred prey.
Ocean noise from development:
The melting ice is also opening Arctic waters to more ship traffic. Shy by nature, narwhals have been observed to cease vocalizing and move away from large vessels, even at 35 – 50 km away. Ships are a major source of damaging ocean noise. Noise pollution, especially from seismic explorations and intense commercial shipping, probably has a major impact on narwhals’ ability to communicate, detect predators, find food, and care for their young.
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Development and marine mammals
See how shipping routes and development overlap with the native range for different marine mammals in the Arctic.
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