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Narwhal

Overview

  • Status
    Near Threatened
  • Population
    more than 80,000
  • Scientific Name
    Monodon monoceros
  • Weight
    up to 4200 pounds
  • Length
    up to 17 feet
  • Habitats
    Oceans

The narwhal looks like a cross between a whale and a unicorn with its long, spiraled tusk jutting from its head. Males most commonly have tusks, and some may even have two. The tusk, which can grow as long as 10 feet, is actually an enlarged tooth. Ongoing research by WWF collaborators indicates that the tusk has sensory capability, with up to 10 million nerve endings inside. The tusk may also play a role in the ways males exert dominance.

Narwhals spend their lives in the Arctic waters of Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia. The majority of the world’s narwhals winter for up to five months under the sea ice in the Baffin Bay-Davis Strait area (between Canada and western Greenland). 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 feed mainly on Greenland halibut, along with other fish, squid and shrimp.

Map of narwhal populations

Map Legend

  CAFF definition of the Arctic
  Approximate seasonal movement
  Winter distribution
  Summer distribution


Sea ice extent

  Minimum 2011
  Maximum 2011

 

Data sources: Blijeven, R. and Y. van Dijk (2011): Artic Cetacean Hotspots. Thesis for Van Hall Lorenstein University of Applied Sciences & WWF-Netherlands.

Unicorn of the Sea: Narwhal Facts

Often dubbed the unicorns of the sea, narwhals are strange and beautiful creatures with long tusks protruding from their heads. Check out some common questions about these near-threatened whales.

narwhal group

Why They Matter

  • Whales, like the narwhal, are at the top of the food chain and have an important role in the overall health of the marine environment. Narwhals are also culturally important to indigenous communities in the Arctic. Like polar bears, the narwhal depends on sea ice for its existence and can be directly impacted by climate change.

Threats

  • Population more than 80,000
  • Extinction Risk Near Threatened
    1. EX
      Extinct

      No reasonable doubt that the last individual has died

    2. EW
      Extinct in the Wild

      Known only to survive in cultivation, in captivity or as a naturalised population

    3. CR
      Critically Endangered

      Facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the Wild

    4. EN
      Endangered

      Facing a high risk of extinction in the Wild

    5. VU
      Vulnerable

      Facing a high risk of extinction in the Wild

    6. NT
      Near Threatened

      Likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future

    7. LC
      Least Concern

      Does not qualify for Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, or Near Threatened

Narwhal

Climate Change

Thousands of years of evolution have prepared Arctic species like the polar bear, walrus and narwhal for life on and around the sea ice. Because of climate change, that ice cover has been changing rapidly, in both extent and thickness, and shrinking far too quickly for these species to adapt. A narwhal’s entire life is connected to sea ice, both as a place to feed and a place to take refuge. Slow swimming whales rely on sea ice as a place to hide from predators like killer whales.

Vessels that support oil and gas development mean increased shipping in sensitive areas. Increased shipping means more noise that can mask communications for many Arctic marine species and it increases the potential for collisions with marine mammals, especially whales. It also brings more pollution and a greater possibility of oil or fuel spills.

Ocean Noise

Shipping, industrial extraction, marine construction and military activities cause underwater noise pollution. Since whales depend on sound to communicate, any interference by noise pollution can negatively affect their ability to find food and mates, navigate, avoid predators and take care of their young.

What WWF Is Doing

Satellite Tagging a Narwhal

Team members fit a satellite radio transmitter to the back of a narwhal.

Satellite Tagging

WWF studies the movements of narwhals by attaching satellite tags to the animals. These satellite tags allow us to follow the movements of the narwhals during their annual feeding and reproductive routines. This information will help us better understand these unique animals.

See the movements of tagged narwhals in North Baffin Island, Canada.

Improving Whale Protection

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is the body charged with regulating whaling and addressing the vast number of other threats to whales, dolphins and porpoises in our oceans such as shipping, climate change, and bycatch. WWF is pushing to make the IWC more effective at reducing these threats that go beyond whaling.

Protecting whales from ocean noise

WWF partnered with Natural Resource Defense Council and Ocean Conservation Research to raise awareness of and address the threat of ocean noise on marine animals like the beluga. Our Don’t Be a Buckethead initiative shares the story of the many different Arctic marine species which depend on sound for survival and the harmful effects of underwater noise pollution.

Related Species

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