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Narwhal

Species Spotlight: Narwhal

Vital Signs

Common name: Narwhal

Pod of narwhals, northern Canada, August 2005. Image courtesy of Kristin Laidre.

Latin name: Monodon monoceros
Status under SARA: No status, 2004 COSEWIC assessment: Special Concern.
Range: Arctic Ocean – Baffin Bay and Hudson Bay
Life Span: Thought to be up to 50 years, but most Narwhals do not live past 30.
Size: Males can grow to 5.40 m and 1935 kg; females can grow to 4.94 m and 1552 kg.
Population estimate: The Baffin Bay population is estimated to be 45,000 mature individuals or more while the Hudson Bay population is estimated to be around 2,100.

The Facts

  • Narwhals are medium-sized toothed whales without a dorsal fin.
  • Adult Narwhals have two teeth. In males, the right tooth often remains embedded in the skull and the left forms a spiral tusk that can measure over three meters long.
  • Two of three recognized populations of Narwhals occur in Canada. The third occurs in East Greenland.
  • Little is known of the habitat requirements of Narwhals. In summer, they prefer coastal areas offering deep waters and shelter from the wind. In the fall, Narwhals migrate to deep fjords and the continental shelf, where water depths range from 1000 to 1500 m.
  • Females are thought to mature at five to eight years and they first reproduce between 7 to 13 years. Most calves are produced in July and August after a gestation period of 14 to 15.3 months. On average, mature females produce a single calf every three years and are believed to continue doing so until about 23 years of age.
  • Narwhals can make diverse sounds and are sensitive to underwater noise. They are thought to use click-sounds for orientation and for echolocation. They also squeal, growl, and whistle to communicate. Narwhals can detect ships as far as 80 km away and they show behavioural responses to them at distances of 55-40 km.

The Story

Historically, Narwhals were important to the culture and traditional economy of the eastern Canadian Arctic. Today, they still have much social and cultural significance for some communities. They are mostly hunted for their skin and ivory. The ivory is sold internationally at a high price while the skin is consumed as food in local communities and is highly valued, though the rest of the meat is not usually eaten. In fact, demand of Narwhal skin often exceeds supply.

The Narwhal is also important from an ecological perspective. It is the only member of its genus and is high up on the food chain. Narwhals have also garnered popular interest thanks to their unique tusk, which likens them to the fabled unicorns. It is also an animal shielded in mystery as its habitat is remote and, to date, there has been no successful study of Narwhals in captivity.

Potential threats to Narwhals include hunting, pollution, climate change and industrial activities such as commercial fishing. However, their widespread and remote distribution as well as their preference for deep waters mitigate many of these threats—Narwhals often steer clear of hunting and fishing areas as well as areas at risk of oil spills. Often, they only venture into this territory under exceptional circumstances such as being trapped by ice or driven to shallow waters by Killer Whales.

Hunting represents the most consistent limiting factor to Narwhal populations in Canada. It is unclear how adaptable Narwhals might be — as such, little can be determined as to the effects climate change might have on their continued survival.

What’s Being Done

Currently, Narwhal protection in Canada only extends to managing hunting, live capture, and the movement of Narwhal products. There are no marine conservation or protected areas that protect Narwhals in Canadian waters, though Narwhals can be found in some areas within Nunavut National Parks.

Narwhal hunting is regulated through quotas and restrictions established by the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board. International trade of Narwhal products is also regulated by a number of laws and conventions.

To date, international organisation have been unable to determine the status of the Narwhal due to insufficient data.

What You Can Do

  • Stay informed and advocate for the protection of whales and marine wildlife.
  • Support habitat conservation initiatives and advocate for protected areas.

 Resources

Species at Risk Act Registry, SARA.
COSEWIC Assessment and Status Report on the Narwhal.

Thanks to Nature Canada volunteer Amanda Simard  for contributing this profile. 

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