Legends and truths about narwhals, the mysterious unicorns of the Arctic

Il corno del narvalo è un dente, molto sensibile, e non viene utilizzato per infilzare il cibo, come una sorta di kebab marino.

Unicorns don’t exist (or maybe they do). Narwhals aren’t horses with horns in their foreheads, but cetaceans with a long tooth emerging from their upper lips, in males, forming a long spiral sword.

Two narwhal (Monodon monoceros) surfacing to breathe in Admiralty Inlet, Lancaster Sound, Nunavut, Canada.
Two narwhals in the ice of Nanavut, Canada © Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Stock/WWF-Canada

Myths about narwhals

Narwhals (Monodon monoceros) are one of the most iconic and mysterious creatures of the Arctic and have intrigued explorers and scientists for hundreds of years, probably also spawning legends about unicorns. Despite scientific developments, a lot about these animals is still unknown, also due to the remote, wild places they live in. For these reasons, there are many wrong beliefs regarding them.

“A lot of people really don’t believe they’re still alive,” says Martin Nweeia of Harvard University. According to one of the most widespread myths about these marine mammals, narwhals spear their food, like fish and squids, with their “tusks”.

This isn’t true, mainly for practical reasons. Narwhals’ teeth can reach up to 3 metres in length, but the prey they feed on are pretty small and would be very difficult to spear. And even if a narwhal did spear its prey, it wouldn’t able to reach it.

Male Narwhal (Monodon monoceros) gathering en masse to eat cod in the spring at the Arctic Bay floe edge in Lancaster Sound, Nunavut, Canada.
A group of narwhals looking for cod off the coast of Nunavut, Canada © Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Stock/WWF-Canada

Truths about narwhals

Narwhals belong to a group of animals known as toothed whales; however, they don’t chew the food they eat. They actually don’t have teeth in their mouth: the only one they have is their characteristic “tusk”.

In order to explain the functions of narwhals’ teeth, many theories have been formed: defence or attack weapon, ice-breaker, courting instrument, respiratory organ. According to the study “Sensory ability in the narwhal tooth organ system”, published by The Anatomical Record in 2014, the narwhal’s tooth has sensory nerve endings, which help these cetaceans feel sea temperatures and changes in water salinity, and perhaps find their mates and prey.

Female narwhal (Monodon monoceros) Canadian Arctic, August
Female narwhal off the Canadian Arctic archipelago © naturepl.com/Doug Allan/WWF-Canon

Narwhals are currently threatened by climate change and the increasingly destructive impacts of human activity in the Arctic. In particular, it is thought that noise pollution disturbs the communication and orientation of these shy cetaceans.

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