Narwhal (Monodon monoceros) | WWF-Canada


Unicorns of the sea

The narwhal (Monodon monoceros) is famous for the long ivory tusk that spirals counter-clockwise up to 9 feet forward from the head of adult males. Hundreds of years ago, those tusks were thought by some to have magical properties.

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.

Narwhal Basics

Scientific Name: Monodon monoceros
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
© / Doug Allan / WWF © Janet FOSTER / WWF-Canada © Janet FOSTER / WWF-Canada © Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada


As summer home to over 80,000 narwhals (about three-quarters of the world’s total population), Canada is in a unique position to keep narwhal populations healthy by ensuring that their habitat remains intact, and that the waters where they swim are carefully managed to ensure a safe balance between economic interests like oil and gas, and shipping developments, and the long-term needs of marine wildlife species.

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.
 / ©: Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada
Male Narwhal (Monodon monoceros) gathering en masse to eat cod in the spring at the Arctic Bay floe edge in Lancaster Sound, Nunavut, Canada. 
© Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada

Life under the ice

The 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.
 / ©: Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada
Two narwhal (Monodon monoceros) surfacing to breathe in Admiralty Inlet, Lancaster Sound, Nunavut, Canada.
© Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada

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.
 / ©: / Doug Allan / WWF-Canon
Female narwhal (Monodon monoceros) Canadian Arctic, August.
© / Doug Allan / WWF-Canon

The tusk

The 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.
 / ©: / Bryan and Cherry Alexander / WWF-Canon
Close up of Narwhal (Monodon monoceros) in water showing its ivory tooth, Northwest Greenland.
© / Bryan and Cherry Alexander / WWF-Canon
The tusk may play a role in male dominance hierarchies and in addition, ongoing research by the WWF collaborators at Narwhal Tusk Research indicates that the tusk has significant sensory capabilities, with millions of nerve endings inside.

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 tracker

In 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.
 / ©: Janet FOSTER / WWF-Canada
Pod of Narwhal (Monodon monoceros) surfacing in Arctic waters, Northwest Territories, Canada.
© Janet FOSTER / WWF-Canada
These satellite tags allow us to follow the movements of the narwhal as they go about their annual feeding and reproductive routines, in order to better understand these unique creatures and especially to identify the main migration paths and wintering areas – to help inform decision-making about increasing industrial activities there, including oil and gas developmentshipping, and commercial fisheries. 


Project partners

There are many great partners on this project, from experienced hunters from the local Mittimatilik Hunters and Trappers Organization, to veterinary experts, research scientists, logistical support staff, and of course WWF as a wildlife conservation organization. It takes at least 15 people on a field crew to be able to catch and handle these whales properly, and so we are totally grateful and dependent on each other in order to both fund and then complete the necessary fieldwork. We all really appreciate the local community’s (Pond Inlet) kindness and willingness to share knowledge and friendship and time to allow this great project to succeed, and to host the visiting researchers in these beautiful landscapes.


Climate change:
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.

Read about all Arctic threats.

What WWF is doing

From supporting research into narwhal movements and behaviour, we are learning all we can about these Arctic icons, so we can create more effective conservation plans for this whale and the key areas they need.

Learn more about WWF’s work in the Arctic.

Development and marine mammals

See how shipping routes and development overlap with the native range for different marine mammals in the Arctic.

Explore the map

WWF-Canada Podcast: The Mysterious Narwhal

Corpse whale

The narwhal’s name comes from the Old Norse word nár, meaning "corpse" and hvalr, meaning “whale”. This is likely because of their pale, mottled colour, and their summertime habit of “logging” – or lying inactive just under the water’s surface.  

Did you know?

Narwhals change colour with age. Newborns are mottled blue-grey, juveniles are completely blue-black, adults are mottled grey and old narwhals are mainly mottled white.

How we track narwhals