Common Name: Narwhal

Class: Mammalia

Order: Cetacea

Suborder: Odontoceti

Family: Monodontidae

Genus: Monodon

Species: Monodon monoceros



Narwhal's belong to the Mammalian Order Cetacea, in the suborder Odontoceti.  All toothed whales belong to the suborder Odontoceti, which is Latin for "toothed whales".  The narwhal belongs to the white whale family, Monodontidae.  The other member of this family is the beluga.  The narwhal's scientific name is Monodon monoceros, which means "one tooth, one horn".  The word 'narwhal' is derived from Old Norse, meaning corpse-whale, which refers to the whale's pallid coloration.

The narwhal has two teeth, both of which are nonfunctional.  The large, prominent tusk of the narwhal, is actually its left tooth.  This tusk protrudes from the left side of the animal's mouth, at a downward angle. As the only whale species with such a feature, the narwhal is easy to identify.  Only male narwhal have the protruding tusk.  Narwhal do not have dorsal fins.  They do however, have a dorsal ridge, which is an uneven ridge on their lower back.  Absence of a dorsal fin allows the narwhal to freely swim beneath ice flows.  Adult males reach sizes of 15 ft in length and 3,500 lbs in weight.  Adult females are smaller, reaching 13 ft in length and weighing 2,000 lbs.


Narwhal inhabit the frigid, waters off the arctic circle.  They are one of three cetacean species to live entirely in the arctic seas, the bowhead whale and beluga being the remaining two.  The deep, cold inlets of the north provide narwhal with a fine source of arctic cod, pelagic shrimp, squid, and flatfish.  The narwhal's large tusk was once thought to aid in predation, stirring up sediments of the ocean floor to flush out prey.  This theory has since been dismissed because female narwhal have similar diets to males, and females do not have the protruding tusk.


Recent research suggests the narwhal's tusk is used for mating practices.  Narwhal males have been witnessed using their tusks to 'joust' for control of females.  Such a seen would include two males at the surface with their tusks crossed in a fashion similar to a swordfight.  Some whales are heavily scarred from these competitions, with one whale even having a portion of tusk embedded in its skull.

Once a winner has been established, breeding with the desired female ensues.  Gestation lasts 15 months.  A single calf is born, weighing 180 lbs at a length of five feet.  The calf will remain with its mother for 20 months.  Males reach sexual maturity 8-9 years of age, while females mature sexually at 4-7 years of age.


The north Atlantic population of narwhal is estimated at 50,000 animals.  There is no worldwide estimate.  Over 1,000 narwhal are killed each year between the nations of Canada and Greenland.  Offshore oil and mineral drilling also threaten the narwhal's habitat, as well as water pollution and overfishing.  Some Inuit tribes have permission to hunt narwhal.  The meat is used primarily to feed sled dogs, but the skin is a good source of Vitamin C.  The skin is a very chewy delicacy, called 'muktuk'.


Content provided by Canisius College students under the direction of Michael Noonan, PhD.