Monodon monocerosnarwhal

Geographic Range

Narwhals (Monodon monoceros) are regularly found eastwards from the Canadian Arctic to central Russia, but occur infrequently or rarely in eastern Siberia, Alaska, and the western Canadian Arctic. They mostly remain above the Arctic Circle year-round, but stragglers have been recorded around Newfoundland, Europe, and the eastern Mediterranean (Minasian, 1984).


Monodon monoceros occupies one of the most northerly habitats of any cetacean species, between 70°N and 80°N, and seems to have more specific habitat requirements, and thus a more restricted range, than other cetaceans. Narwhals are rarely found far from loose pack ice and they prefer deep water. There are large concentrations in the Davis Strait, around Baffin Bay, and in the Greenland Sea. The advance and retreat of the ice initiates migration.

During summer, narwhals occupy deep bays and fjords; the best known and probably largest narwhal population in the world inhabits the deep inlets, sounds and channels of the eastern Canadian Arctic and north-west Greenland. When ice cover is low in larger, deeper water bodies, they move to smaller water bodies, which are steep-sided and deep. These traditional summering areas at the heads of fjords are probably important areas for calving. The narwhal’s preference for deep water in summer separates them from beluga whales which spend the summer mainly in shallow estuaries and bays (Klinowska, 1991).

  • Range depth
    400 to 800 m
    1312.34 to 2624.67 ft

Physical Description

Head and body length, exclusive of the tusk, is 360-620 cm, pectoral fin length is 30-40 cm, and expanse of the tail flukes is 100-120 cm. According to Reeves and Tracey (1980) average head and body length is about 470 cm in males and 400 cm in females and average weight is 1,600 kg in males and 900 kg in females. About one-third of the weight is blubber. Coloration becomes paler with age. Adults have brownish or dark grayish upper parts and whitish underparts, with a mottled pattern of spots throughout. The head is relatively small, the snout blunt, and the flipper is short and rounded. There is no dorsal fin, but there is an irregular ridge about 5 cm high and 60-90 cm long on the posterior half of the back. The posterior margins of the tail flukes are strongly convex, rather than concave or straight as in most cetaceans.

There are only two teeth, both in the upper jaw. In females the teeth usually are not functional and remain embedded in the bone. In males the right tooth remains embedded, but the left tooth erupts, protrudes through the upper lip, and grows forward in a counterclockwise spiral pattern to form a long, straight tusk. The tusk is about one-third to one-half as long as the head and body and sometimes reaches a length of 300 cm and a weight of 10 kg. In rare cases the right tooth also forms a tusk, but both tusks are always twisted in the same direction. Occasionally one or even two tusks develop in a female. The distal end of the tusk has a polished appearance, and the remainder is usually covered by a reddish or greenish growth of algae. There is an outer layer of cement, an inner layer of dentine, and a pulp cavity that is rich in blood. Broken tusks are common, but the damaged end is filled by new dentine growth (Reeves & Tracey, 1980).

  • Range mass
    900 to 1600 kg
    1982.38 to 3524.23 lb
  • Range length
    400 to 470 cm
    157.48 to 185.04 in


The mating system of narwhals is unknown.

Monodon monoceros is a seasonal breeder. The gestation period is about 15.3 months, with mating occurring in March-May and calving in July-August of the following year. Lactation duration is unknown, but thought to be comparable to the white whale (Delphinapterus leucas) of 20 months. The interval between successive conceptions is normally three years. Monodon monoceros copulate vertically in the water, belly to belly. Infant narwhals are usually implanted in the left uterine horn. A single calf is often the result of gestation, yet some twins have been recorded. Birth takes place tail first (Klinowska, 1991). The newborn is born with 25 mm of blubber. Calves usually measure between 1.5 and 1.7 m and weigh 80 kg. Physical maturity is attained at a length of 4 m and a weight of 900 kg in females and 4.7 m and 1600 kg in males. This usually corresponds to 4 to 7 years of age (Reeves & Tracey, 1980).

  • Breeding season
    March to May
  • Range number of offspring
    1 to 2
  • Average number of offspring
  • Range gestation period
    12 to 15.3 months
  • Average gestation period
    13 months
  • Range weaning age
    12 to 24 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    4 to 7 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    4 to 7 years

Young narwhals are capable of swimming soon after birth. They are nursed and protected by their mothers for extended periods after birth.

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • extended period of juvenile learning


Monodon monoceros may live up to 50+ years in the wild, yet attempts at captive breeding have been unsuccessful. Upon reaching the captive establishment, M. monoceros have only survived from 1 to 4 months. Considering the adult male can grow to 7m long, the species is usually too big to keep in captivity except at the largest of establishments (Klinowska, 1991).


Monodon monoceros is a gregarious species commonly found in pods of six to twenty individuals, though most groups tend to have three to eight individuals. These groups are often segregated by sex, with pods of male 'bachelors' being common. The smaller groups tend to gather together during migration seasons to form herds of hundreds or even thousands.

Monodon monoceros remains in the vicinity of pack ice throughout the year. Breathing holes are maintained through sheets of ice by thrusts of their thick melon, sometimes by several animals at once.

There are various hypotheses for the function of the tusk. Monodon monoceros may use it like male deer, for male-male competition. It also may be used to spear food. During deep dives, the tusk may be helpful in stirring up food from bottom sediments. Since most females are tuskless, the most likely hypothesis is that the tusk is a secondary sexual characteristic and may be the result of sexual selection by females (Reeves & Tracey, 1991).

Communication and Perception

Food Habits

Narwhals have a varied diet, feeding upon squid, fish and crustaceans. With few functional teeth this animal is thought to use suction and the emission of a jet of water to dislodge prey such as bottom-living fish and molluscs. Their highly flexible necks aid in scanning a broad area and the capture of more mobile prey.

Foods eaten include: Polar cod, Greenland halibut, flounder, salmon, herring, crustaceans and cephalopods (octopuses and squids).

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • mollusks
  • aquatic crustaceans


Some have suggested that the tusk is used for anti-predatory functions, this is unsupported by evidence. Nonetheless, the tusk, which can grow to 3 m, would be a formidable weapon.

Ecosystem Roles

Narwhals harbour several species of commensal animals such as whale lice and certain nematodes. They act to limit the populations of their prey species.

Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • Nematods
  • Cestodes
  • Trematodes
  • Acanthocephalans
  • Whale lice

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Historically narwhals were a staple food source of many Arctic peoples. Arctic people used the narwhals body for a number of other uses. The blubber can be rendered for oil, the sinew used as thread, and the tusks traded and carved.

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse affects to humans.

Conservation Status

Monodon monoceros is listed as CITES Appendix II and IUCN Data Deficient. As in most ivory bearing mammals around the world, destruction of individuals for their ivory is a constant threat. (Klinowska, 1991)

Other Comments

Narwhals are hunted from the ice, from boats and from kayaks in Canada and Greenland. The Inuit people prize them for their skin (known as mattak or muktuk), which is eaten in the traditional way - raw with a thin layer of fat. The tusk of the Narwhal is also prized, this time as a money-earner: tourists and collectors pay handsomely for the sea-unicorn's horn.

Estimated Current Population: 25,000-45,000 animals (Klinowska,1991).


Chad Drury (author), University of Northern Iowa, Jim Demastes (editor), University of Northern Iowa.


Arctic Ocean

the body of water between Europe, Asia, and North America which occurs mostly north of the Arctic circle.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


union of egg and spermatozoan


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.

internal fertilization

fertilization takes place within the female's body


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


eats mollusks, members of Phylum Mollusca


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


An aquatic biome consisting of the open ocean, far from land, does not include sea bottom (benthic zone).


an animal that mainly eats fish


the regions of the earth that surround the north and south poles, from the north pole to 60 degrees north and from the south pole to 60 degrees south.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

sexual ornamentation

one of the sexes (usually males) has special physical structures used in courting the other sex or fighting the same sex. For example: antlers, elongated tails, special spurs.


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born


Klinowska, M. 1991. Dolphins, Porpoises and Whales. The IUCN Red Data Book. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.

Minasian, S. 1986. The World's Whales. New York: Academic Press.

Reeves, R., S. Tracey. 1980. *Monodon monoceros*. Mammalian Species, 127: 1-7.