Unicorn of the Sea: Part 2 – The Mystery Continues

Today’s post is the second of a two-part blog in which Laura from the Visitor Team tells the story of the Narwhal, a mysterious and fascinating creature. Catch up with Part 1, telling the history of its discovery, entangled with legends of the magical healing powers of mythical unicorns’ horns. 

For more about animals and nature, have a look at the Curator’s blog, Nature Manchester.

Narwhal – The Mystery Continues

While the myth of the unicorn has disappeared, the narwhal continues to mystify the scientific community, even today. Difficult to keep in captivity, these elusive whales live predominantly in remote Arctic regions making them challenging to study. As a result, the true function of their glorious tusk remains a mystery. There have been several theories behind the purpose of the narwhal’s tusk. It was previously thought that they were used in male-to-male rivalry, but aggressive behaviour has rarely been witnessed in the wild. Another theory was that they assist with navigation, but if this were the case then all narwhals would feature them.

narwhal_2Image from: worldwildlife.org

Narwhals can grow to between 13-18 ft in length, with the tusks, an elongated canine, growing up to an incredible 10 ft. Although it is predominantly the males that grow them, some females grow smaller tusks, and on occasion some of these whales have been known to grow two. They are made from incredibly dense ivory which makes them surprisingly heavy. Unlike other animals that possess tusks the narwhal grows in a spiral, keeping it straight and increasing surface area. The other notable difference is that unlike other teeth it doesn’t feature a layer of enamel, instead, the surface is perforated with holes allowing seawater to travel to the centre of the tusk connecting millions of nerve endings straight to the brain. This allows the narwhal to sense the surrounding ocean environment, but to what extent is still open to debate.

narwhal_3Image from: worldwildlife.org

Closely related to the beluga whale, the narwhal is a medium-sized whale that’s part of the white whale family. Born a dark grey colour, they gradually grow lighter as they mature. Narwhals can live up to 50 years with the most elderly turning almost completely white. They get their name from the Old Norse word nar meaning ‘corpse’ – comparing their mottled, grey skin to that of a drowned sailor!

narwhal_4Image from: worldwildlife.org

While the hunting of the narwhal is closely monitored, indigenous people are generally permitted to hunt them due to the high amounts of vitamin C in the whale skin – about as much an orange. Living in the polar regions means that vitamin C is difficult to come across, therefore permission to hunt narwhal is a way to aid in the conservation of cultures and traditional ways of life.

If you can handle a bit of gore, this clip from the brilliant documentary Human Planet explains more about narwhal hunting:

discovery.com video – Human Planet: Capturing a Narwhal

The Narwhal is one of the many animals threatened by climate change. Considered to be near threatened, there are estimated to be just 75,000 left in the wild. As the Arctic continues to melt and the northern passage becomes more accessible, it is feared that overfishing will affect narwhal numbers. They eat a highly specific diet of Greenland halibut, Arctic and polar cod, squid and prawns which could become scarce as these areas become busier. The increase in shipping vessels could also lead to more collisions, interfere with migration, and produce noise pollution which can disrupt communication between the whales. It has been suggested that the narwhal could be even more sensitive to climate change than the polar bear.

narwhal_5Image from: worldwildlife.org

But on a positive note, the threatened and endangered species from the Arctic like the Narwhal have been given a huge boost in their fight for survival in the last, with one of the last actions of Barack Obama’s US presidency being the banning of gas and oil drilling in most of the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.

By being conscious of the decisions we make and the way we consume we can all contribute to reducing the effects of climate change and together we can prevent this graceful creature from becoming as mythical as the unicorn.

Laura Bennett

With special thanks to Henry Mcghie and Bryony Rigby for their advice and help.

For a closer look at the museums narwhal tusk, our very own Cabinet of Curiosities can be found on Natures Library next to the Vivarium.

For more information on the narwhal, have a look at; worldwildlife.org – Unicorn of the Sea and www.worldwildlife.org – Narwhal

For more stories about nature, have a look at the Curator’s blog, Nature Manchester.

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2 thoughts on “Unicorn of the Sea: Part 2 – The Mystery Continues

  1. Hey, just saw an interesting documentary on the Nawrl Whale. On the BBC, I think. Still a staple food for the Inuit Indians. Not slathered or for sold for money, just what is needed for food and the etc., that go along with necessities of life in the Arctic.

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