Narwhals are mysterious Arctic creatures. Many people have only ever seen them on TV or heard about them. Narwhals have commonly been called the “Whales with Unicorn Horns” or “Unicorns of the Sea.” But, why is that? Where did that nickname come from? Let’s explore that together.
History of Narwhals- whales with Unicorn horn
Narwhals, often referred to as the Unicorns of the sea, are coveted creatures. They get their nickname because of the one horn on top of their head. The “Mystery of the Sea Unicorn” article from National Geographic stated that the rumor started in 1577, when sailors found a frozen Narwhal and described it as a “sea unicorn.”
Martin Frobisher, the man that led the expedition, took the horn to Queen Elizabeth who kept it with the crowned jewels. From there, narwhal horns were labeled as “unicorn horns” and sold at high prices throughout England. The most elite had their cups and scepters made of unicorn horns. As European naturalists became more aware of narwhals, the rumors faded but the nickname stuck.
Narwhals are classified as porpoises. They are closely related to whales, the beluga specifically. Often found in the Arctic waters of Canada, Russia, Greenland and Norway, these animals thrive in the cold temperatures and icy terrain. They can dive a mile deep into the water, and use cracks in the ice to come up for air. They mainly eat smaller sea-life, such as polar cod, shrimp and squid. They eat near icy edges and ice-free summer waters.
Narwhals are born with a blue-gray coloring, and change coloras they age. Juveniles are black-gray, adults are mottled gray, and old narwhals are almost all white. They travel in groups of 15-20, but they have been seen with hundreds or even thousands have been reported together. The World Wildlife Fund report that they survey narwhal populations via satelite. They can observe their feeding and mating routines to continue learning more about the species.
There are more than 80,000 narwhals alive today, and they can get up to 17 feet in length (approximately5,2 meters). Their horns can get up to 8 feet long (approximately 2,4 meters). National Geographic reported that this horn is actually a Narwhal tooth protruding out of their upper lip. Females have one while males have two teeth. It is uncertain what the tooth’s purpose is, but it could be for mating rituals or to fight off rivals. Female tusks are not as large as male’s tusks.
Scientists have found that the Narwhal tooth is a sensory organ. While the main purpose is unknown, there have been studiesthat show how the Narwhal’s heartbeat changes based on the salt in water. There are over 10 million nerve endings within the tooth. These nerve endings could possibly help in locating food.
Threats for Narwhals
Narwhals face many threats. Gas and oil development within their habitat. It will change how they get around as well as their exposure to gas and oil. Global warming is another threat, which is melting their icy home. Melting ice caps will alter how Narwhals hunt their prey and where they go.
More development means more ships, which interfere with narwhal communication and cause more injuries from collisions. Narwhals are also hunted for their horns and meat by Inuit tribes. These tribes are legallyable to hunt Narwhals for sustenance, as well as cultural and economical reasons. The species is protected from all other hunters outside of the Inuit communities.
Narwhals can also get stuck in the melting ice caps. When this happens, they can be easy prey to hunters. Narwhals can also be hunted by polar bears or walruses. Killer whales have also started hunting Narwhals due to the melting ice caps. Killer whales can reach Narwhals since the space between ice caps are large enough for them to swim into them. The melting ice caps also affect the sea-life that Narwhals eat, which will affect their numbers as well.
Inuit- neighbors and hunters of narwhals
Smithsonianhas stated that Inuit people are also helping scientific organizations learn more about these animals. Due to how intricate Narwhals are tied into Inuit culture, many tribespeople know about Narwhal behaviors and anatomy. Inuit communities have also provided information on how global warming is affecting the arctic ecosystem.
Inughuit are one of the Inuit communities who live in the Arctic landscape with Narwhals. They survive in the cold climate to live with and hunt these animals for food, economics and cultural means. They use kayaks and harpoons to hunt.
Narwhal behaviors have become less predictable due to ice caps melting and changing how they hunt and migrate. This has also affected the Inuit communities, who are struggling more with hunting them.
Narwhal – Unicorns connection
Unicorn hornsare commonly associated with water due to their purifying ability. Horn and water are also the main connection to Narwhals. Unicorn horns were also rumored to cure poisons and ailments. When Narwhals were hunted for their horns and sold as Unicorn horns, many people bought them to cure various ailments. These rumors were seen as true when a “placebo” effect happened to those that believed the horn would help their conditions.
Narwhals are interesting animals. Mysterious, and rarely seen in person. Unless you make frequent trips to the Arctic. These characteristics are reminiscent of Unicorns, which has helped contribute to their nickname- whales with unicorn horn. Further advancements in technology and research will likely yield more information on these creatures. Perhaps there will be more similarities between the two in the future.