Narwhals: the unicorns of the sea

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 October, 2008, 12:00am

Long in the tooth

There is an ancient Inuit story about a woman who fell into the ocean while holding a harpoon.

As the woman splashed about, a beluga whale swam up to see what was happening. The curious whale swam so close to the woman, it was speared by the harpoon. And that, the Inuit say, is how the first narwhal was made.

Narwhals live in the cold seas of the North Pole. Although scientists have studied them, they still have no idea what the narwhal's tusk is for.

What we do know is that narwhals have two teeth. In adult males, the right tooth grows into a big tusk. Occasionally the left tooth also becomes a tusk. Some females have tusks but most don't.

In the past, scientists thought tusks might be used for spearing fish. However, this turned out to be wrong.

Now they think male narwhals might use their tusks to battle rivals in underwater 'sword fights'.

What do you think the narwhal's tusk is for?

True or false?

1 All male narwhals have tusks.

2 Some female narwhals have tusks.

3 Narwhals use their tusks to spear fish.

In the icy depths

Choose the correct adjective:

Narwhals are toothed whales that live in the frosty/warm waters of the Arctic. Because these icy regions are hard to reach, learning about their daily lives is very easy/difficult.

Narwhals are social/solitary animals that live in groups called pods. Pods of 15 to 20 animals are common. But some pods have several thousand narwhals.

Female narwhals grow up to 4m long and weigh 1,000kg. Males are even bigger. They can grow up to 5m long and weigh 3,500kg.

But you don't need to use a measuring tape to tell which is which. A male narwhal is hard/easy to spot because he has a three-metre-long tooth sticking out of his mouth.

Because of this tusk, the narwhal is nicknamed 'unicorn of the sea'.

A whale of a tale

Find words that mean: supernatural, drug, keep safe

In medieval times, European sailors hunted narwhals for their tusks. These were then sold as magical unicorn horns.

Narwhal tusks were extremely expensive. But because people thought they were magical, they were willing to pay a lot of money.

Some tusks were turned into powder and sold as medicine for epilepsy, heart disease and fever.

Kings and queens bought drinking cups made from narwhal tusks. They believed these special cups would protect them from poison.

Queen Elizabeth I of England had a narwhal tooth cup that cost GBP10,000 - she could have bought a castle for the same amount of money.

Animals at risk

Find words that mean the opposite of:

certain, legal, modern

It's unclear how many narwhals exist. There are between 20,000 and 50,000 in the northwest Atlantic Ocean. But nobody knows how many there are in the rest of the Arctic seas.

The Inuit in Greenland and Canada kill about 1,000 narwhals every year. They eat the meat and use the oil from the narwhals' bodies to make candles. They also make money by selling the tusks.

It is illegal to import ivory into many countries. Narwhal tusks often end up in Asia to make traditional medicines, as the laws are less strict.

Scientists say too many narwhals are killed every year. They are also under threat from oil and mining companies polluting the seas where the narwhals live.

If we want narwhals to survive, we must avoid buying products made from their tusks.

Tusk masters

African elephants have three-metre-long tusks that can weigh 90kg. They use these long teeth to dig for water, to strip bark off trees, and as weapons.

Walrus tusks can grow up to 1m long and weigh 5.4kg. Warthogs have similar teeth, but their tusks are usually just 25 centimetres long. Both walruses and warthogs use their tusks for digging and fighting.

Although ivory tusks are very useful, they're also a handicap. Hunters like to kill elephants, walruses and narwhals for their tusks.

A worldwide ivory trade ban in 1989 helped protect animals with tusks. But if people continue to buy ivory illegally, the killing won't stop.

fab fact!

The name 'narwhal' means 'corpse whale' in Old Norse. The narwhal got this name because it likes to float on its back in the water. When it lies very still, it looks like it is dead.

fab fact!

Narwhals love to talk. They make lots of sounds, including squeals, trills, whistles and clicks. Scientists are recording these sounds and hope to learn what these mean soon.

fab fact!

Narwhals have an 11-centimetre-thick layer of fat that keeps them warm when they swim in icy Arctic waters.

now do this

Answer the following questions. To test your memory, try answering without referring to the text. If you can't remember the details, read the piece again.

1 The _____ are people who live in the Arctic.

a. Inuit

b. Apache

c. Iban

2 Narwhals have ____ teeth.

a. 32

b. 12

c. two

3 Which is true?

a. The narwhal's tusk is shorter than the Asian elephant's.

b. The narwhal's tusk is longer than the African elephant's.

c. The tusks of narwhals and African elephants are the same length.

4 Walrus tusks are made from ...

a. ivory

b. horn

c. hair

5 What does narwhal mean?

a. blue fish

b. spotted whale

c. corpse whale

6 What are groups of narwhals called?

a. bulls

b. cows

c. pods


True or false: 1. true; 2. true; 3. false

Unicorn of the sea: frosty; difficult; social; easy

A whale of a tale: magical; medicine; protect

Animals at risk: unclear; illegal; traditional

Now do this: 1. a; 2. c; 3. c; 4. a; 5. c; 6. c