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Narwhal Whales

















What is taxonomy?

Narwhals have small rounded heads, short flippers with upturned tips, and no dorsal fin but an uneven dorsal ridge along the spine.   Males are larger than the females, with largest whales reaching roughly 16 feet (4.9 meters).   Skin color changes with age; newborns are blotchy slate or bluish gray, juveniles become completely bluish-black, adults are mottled gray and old narwhals are nearly all white.

Interesting Facts:

  • Narwhals are one of three whale species that spend their entire lives in the Arctic—the others being bowhead and beluga whales.
  • Narwhals are animals of myth and legend and could have been the basis for the mythical unicorn.   Narwhal males (and some females) have two teeth, the left of which grows into a long clockwise-spiraled tusk extending forward from the head.
  • Scars on narwhal males suggest that they use their tusks to joust.   Narwhals are hunted for their ivory tusks, blubber, and meat.

What should I know about narwhals?

Where do narwhals live?

Narwhals spend their whole lives in Arctic waters, bordering Russia, North America, and Greenland. 

How many narwhals are there?

Narwhals are not considered an endangered species but certain populations have been heavily hunted.

How can I identify a narwhal?

Male narwhals are easy to identify because of their long, ivory tusks.  The tusks tend to be covered in algae except for the tip.  Adult male and female narwhals are mottled and spotted with gray-green, black, and cream colors. Narwhals are born gray, darken in color and then, starting with the belly, whiten with age.

How well can a narwhal see or hear?

Narwhals likely possess excellent hearing and vision.  

What do narwhals eat?

Narwhals create a sort-of vacuum and suck up their food which includes squid, Greenland halibut, shrimp, Arctic cod,  rockfish, flounder, and crab.   Narwhals only have two vestigial teeth. The male narwhal tusk is thought to play no role in feeding because males and tuskless females consume the same diet.

How do narwhals have their young?

Female narwhals are old enough to reproduce after 5 years, males after 8 years. Most narwhal females conceive in mid-April.  Calves are born in mid-July in the following year (after a 15 month gestation period). Female narwhals usually give birth every three years.

How long do narwhals live? How do they die?

Narwhals may live for 30-40 years. The only real animal predator of narwhals are killer whales that journey up to the Arctic regions. Narwhals are hunted by Inuit people for their skin, oil, meat, and tusks.

Where can I find more information about narwhals?

Books and the world wide web are excellent places to learn more about marine mammals. 


  • Leatherwood, Stephen. Reeves, Randall R. Foster, Larry.   The Sierra Handbook of Whales and Dolphins.  Sierra Club, San Francisco, CA.  1983.
  • Leatherwood, Stephen.  Reeves, Randall R. Perrin, William F.   Evans, William E.  Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises of the Eastern North Pacific and Adjacent Arctic waters; A Guide to their Identification.  Dover Publications, Inc., New York, NY.  1988.
  • Wynne, Kate. Folkens, Pieter. Guide to Marine Mammals of Alaska.  Alaska Sea Grant Program.  University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK.  1992. 

World Wide Web

There are many more sources to learn about cetaceans.   Check with MML's online library or your local librarian for her or his recommendations.

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This portion of the MML website is intended for a student audience and their educators.
Information within the education website should not be cited in scientific journals or publications.

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