Skip To Content

    10 Things You Didn't Know About Narwhals

    Yes, they're real!

    1. Although they're referred to as unicorns of the sea, narwhals are very real.

    New Line Cinema

    You may have seen Buddy's narwhal pal bidding him good luck in Elf. The mystical nickname comes from its prominent tusk, which looks a lot like a unicorn horn.

    2. Their spiral tusks are actually teeth!

    Paul Nicklen / National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada

    Narwhals have two teeth. For males, one takes the form of an ivory tusk that comes out of his upper lip. Ladies can also grow tusks, but they’re daintier in size.

    3. They can be as big as a school bus.

    Paul Nicklen / National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada / Via

    Their tusks can grow to be longer than you are tall, making them majestically massive, as this little graphic from National Geographic shows.

    4. Each tooth can contain up to 10 million nerve endings. / Eric Baccega / WWF-Canon

    After examining tusks they collected from hunters, a team of researchers found that narwhal teeth are filled with a pulpy nerve tissue that appears to be sensitive to its surroundings, much like your teeth hurting when you bite into ice cream, Wired's Nadia Drake surmises.

    The study, published in the The Anatomical Record, also found that the whales' heart rates rose and fell in response to high-salt and fresh water. While that can indicate the tusks are sensitive to a variety of stimuli, marine mammal biologist Kristin Laidre told National Geographic that the animals may have been stressed during the measurements.

    5. Narwhals are hunted for their skin and tusks.


    Their skin is rich in vitamin C, and their rare tusks can be sold for a high price. Though Inuit people hunt them, the biggest threats to their "near threatened" status are more likely climate change, oil and gas development, and underwater noise pollution that interferes with communication, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

    6. Narwhals are some of the world's deepest divers. / Doug Allan / WWF-Canon

    During winter, narwhals dive up to a mile and do so up to 25 times a day. (For the metrically inclined, that's about 800 to 1,500 meters.) Each submersion usually lasts about a half hour.

    If you don't know much about the sea, the pressure at those depths is intense. At 2,200 pounds per square inch (PSI), life is lived in the dark, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

    But narwhals can shut off oxygen or blood flow to noncritical body parts, and they have a conveniently compressible rib cage. Unlike dolphins, their muscles are built for endurance swimming, which helps conserve energy and, subsequently, oxygen consumption.

    7. Old narwhals are almost completely white.

    Paul Nicklen / National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada

    Born blue-gray, narwhals change hues as they get older. Juveniles are blue-black, and adults are a lovely marbled gray.

    8. New research found that the bigger the tusk, the larger the testes.


    Scientists haven’t been able to research much about their mating habits, leading to a lot of speculation about what those tusks are for, exactly.

    But a new study published in Marine Mammal Science shows male tusks can be linked to the size of their testes, which is an indicator of fertility. That means that like peacocks, narwhals might rely on their appearance to attract a mate.

    9. They use sound to find breathing holes in ice.

    Paul Nicklen / National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada

    Like bats and other whales, narwhals use echolocation to map their surroundings. Their echoes are so sophisticated, they can find them from hundreds of feet away, as you can see in this BBC video.

    10. Because they're so elusive, researchers have started tracking them to find out more about them.

    World Wildlife Fund / Via

    To get a better idea of where narwhals go to feast and mate, WWF outfitted a few of them with satellite tags in Canada. You can follow their journeys online and even symbolically adopt a narwhal.

    BuzzFeed Daily

    Keep up with the latest daily buzz with the BuzzFeed Daily newsletter!

    Newsletter signup form