Narwhal has a second name, it is called a sea unicorn, and this designation is not accidental. These animals have an unusual, unique appearance that amazed the discoverers and continues to amaze so far. These are smart and graceful animals that live in the coldest parts of the planet.
Origin of the species and description
Narwhals — mammals belonging to the narwhal family and genus are the only representatives of their genus. Narwhals are cetaceans – mammals that have been able to fully adapt to life in the water.
It is difficult to establish the origin of narwhals, since their ancestors have not been found that would have a similar tusk that grows from the head of narwhals. The closest relatives of narwhals are beluga, they have the same constitutional structure, with the exception of the structure of the oral cavity.
Cetaceans have much in common with artiodactyls. According to the genetic code, they are close to hippos, so it can be concluded that Mesonychia mammals were the ancient ancestors of narwhals. These animals looked like wolves, but had paired hooves.
Mesonychia lived near the coasts and fed on fish, crustaceans and mollusks. Such a diet forced the animals to often go out into the water or live in swamps. Their bodies changed under the aquatic lifestyle – a streamlined body shape was formed, compacted tails. The nostrils of all cetaceans are located on the back – they perform exactly the same functions as the nose of land animals.
Interesting fact: Narwhal tusk is an amazing evolutionary phenomenon. When scientists truly understand why these animals need it, many questions about the origin of the narwhal will be closed.
Why the narwhal does not have a dorsal fin is also an open question. Probably due to the northern habitat, the fin was reduced – it was inconvenient when swimming on the surface, near the ice layer. The fins of cetaceans are fragile enough that narwhals could easily break them on thick ice.
Appearance and Features
Narwhals are very large animals – their weight can exceed a ton, and the body of males reaches 6 meters in length. The bulk of the narwhal is fat, which protects the animal from the cold and allows it to go without food for a long time.
Narwhals have sexual dimorphism: males are one and a half times larger than females. Outwardly, all individuals resemble whales, dolphins and swordfish because of their long “horns”. They have a large, rounded head with a movable neck, like a beluga whale. There is no fin on the back, the body is smooth, streamlined, which allows the narwhal to develop high speeds. The color of narwhals is the same: it is a pale gray body, covered with dark and black spots, which are most of all on the back and head.
Interesting fact: Because of the color, narwhals got their name – from the Swedish language “narwhal” & # 8212; this is a “corpse whale” because their coloring reminded the discoverers of cadaveric spots.
Narwhal mouths are small, narrow, and lack teeth, with the exception of a pair of upper incisor-like teeth. The upper left tooth of the male turns into the very tusk that cuts through the skull and grows into a spiral up to 3 m long. The weight of such a tusk can reach 10 kg. Females have such tusks, although they are quite rare.
Interesting fact: The Hamburg Museum contains the skull of a female narwhal with two tusks.
Narwhal tusk is unique in its structure: it is very strong and flexible at the same time. Therefore, it is impossible to break it – you need to make tremendous efforts. Scientists do not know why narwhals need a tusk. There is a version that it can attract females during the mating season, but then females would not have such tusks at all.
Another version is that the tusk is a sensitive zone that is able to determine the water temperature and pressure. Contrary to popular belief, narwhals do not fight with tusks or use them as weapons, treating them with extreme care.
Where does the narwhal live?
Narwhals live only in the cold waters of the Northern Ocean, as well as in the north Atlantic.
The places where you can most often find herds of narwhals are as follows:
- Canadian archipelago;
- Greenland coast;
- Franz Josef Land (since 2019);
- Novaya Zemlya;
- south of Great Britain (wintering only);
- Murmansk coast;
- White Sea (also only in winter);
- Bering Islands.
Despite the many territories where narwhals live, their numbers are extremely low. Such a spread complicates the observation of narwhals, because of which, even today, some individuals can become victims of poachers.
Narwhals lead a herd life. They usually live at depth, being in constant motion. Together with cubs and elderly individuals, they travel tens of kilometers a day, being in search of food. Narwhals remember places where there are holes in the ice to breathe.
Two herds of narwhals are extremely rare – with the help of echolocation, they locate each other and avoid meeting. When they meet (they occur, most often, on wintering grounds), they make greeting sounds without conflicting families.
Now you know where the sea unicorn narwhal is found. Let's see what it eats.
What does the narwhal eat?
The physiology and lifestyle of narwhals allows them to become successful predators.
The narwhal's daily diet includes:
- deep-sea small fish – they prefer the most boneless, “soft » fish;
- molluscs, including cephalopods – octopus, cuttlefish, squid;
- various northern fish: halibut, cod, polar cod, red perch.
Narwhals usually hunt at a depth of up to 1 km., although they prefer not to go below 500 meters. If the flock has no food for a long time, they do not experience discomfort from this, but feed on their fat reserves. Narwhals have never been found emaciated or starved to death.
They search for food using echolocation. The sound is repelled by objects, among which narwhals recognize fish or other possible prey. They attack a flock of fish together, grabbing as much food as possible with the help of a moving neck.
If the prey is single – an octopus or a squid, then the cubs and lactating females feed first, then the older females, and only at the end do the males eat . Narwhals spend all their time in search of food.
Like beluga whales, narwhal teeth have the ability to suck up water and “shoot” with a long jet. Narwhals actively use this ability to get octopus or crustaceans from narrow crevices or to pull small fish into their mouths.
Character and lifestyle features
Narwhals are sociable and peaceful creatures. They prefer cold waters, but in autumn, when the water temperature drops, they migrate south. During this period, many narwhals have babies, which is why they also get out into warmer waters.
Narwhals spend most of their time under the ice. Sometimes you can see the long tusks of males that floated to the surface to the polynya to take a breath of oxygen, and then again descend to the depth. If the polynya is covered with ice, large male narwhals break it with their heads, but not with their tusks.
Narwhals, like dolphins, live in packs of up to ten individuals. Males keep apart from females. Narwhals communicate by various sound signals and echolocation, but the exact number of sound signals is unknown. It can be reliably said that killer whales, dolphins and whales have a similar way of communicating.
An interesting fact: Each flock of narwhals has its own sound designations that will not be understood by another flock. It's like different dialects of the same language.
In the summer, narwhals migrate back north, either pregnant or with their young. Sometimes solitary males swim away from the flock – the reason for this behavior is unknown, since narwhals do not expel relatives from the flock. These animals can dive to a depth of 500 meters. Without air, they can stay up to half an hour, but the cubs emerge to breathe every 20 minutes.
Narwhals do not attack other marine life for no reason. They are also non-aggressive towards humans, but, unlike dolphins and some whales, show no curiosity towards them. If narwhals see a boat near a flock, they prefer to slowly move out of sight.
Social Structure and Reproduction
Mating games fall during the spring, but it is difficult to name the exact month due to changing climatic conditions. Narwhals choose the period when the first stable heat appears and the water temperature rises.
As a rule, narwhals are gregarious, but sometimes single individuals are found. During the breeding season, loners join flocks where there are females and males. Most often, females with males keep apart from each other, swimming at a short distance, but during the mating season, all individuals of narwhals get together in one large group, which can number up to 15 individuals.
Narwhals begin to make sounds that have echolocation properties. A number of sounds indicate readiness for mating and searching for a partner – female narwhals choose their males by singing. Aggression in males during this period is not observed, as well as dominant males with the exclusive right to mate.
The absence of a rigid hierarchy in the flock provides narwhals with good genetic diversity, which, in turn, provides a good basis for further reproduction and distribution of the population. Pregnancy of the female lasts approximately 15 months. As a result, she gives birth to one cub, which will swim next to her mother up to 3-4 years. By the age of 5-6, he will become sexually mature. In general, narwhals can live up to 60 years, but in captivity they do not live even a year.
This is due to the high mobility of narwhals – they swim tens of kilometers a day. Also, narwhals are very sociable, so they cannot live in captivity.
Narwhal natural enemies
Because of their large size, narwhals have no natural predators. The only threat to these animals was the man, who influenced the number of narwhals.
Cubs of narwhals can sometimes come across to polar bears while they emerge to the polynya for inspiration. Polar bears do not purposefully hunt narwhals – they just keep watch near the polynya, usually waiting for seals. A polar bear cannot drag a large narwhal, but it can injure with its powerful jaws up to the death of the animal.
If the narwhal moves away from the attack of the polar bear, then he makes a warning sound, signaling to the flock that there is danger. The flock goes to another polynya. For this reason, the first breath, most often, is taken by the male narwhal. During the breeding season, walruses may attack narwhals. Males become extremely aggressive, attacking literally everything underwater. Narwhals are faster than walruses, so they ignore such attacks.
Northern sharks are small predators, but they are dangerous for baby narwhals. As a rule, male sharks drive away the sharks, and females tightly surround the cubs, but sometimes the sharks still get their prey.
It is generally accepted that the main enemy of the narwhal is the killer whale. The fact is that killer whales very rarely attack waterfowl mammals such as whales and dolphins, since they belong to the same family. Only a starving flock of killer whales attacks narwhals. But killer whales are severe predators, and narwhals are afraid of these animals. Because of this, narwhals prefer to live in the northern territories, choosing narrow fjords where large predators do not swim.
Species population and status
Since ancient times, narwhals have served as a source of meat and fat for the indigenous peoples of the Far North. People hunted narwhals by keeping watch at the opening or sailing out into the cold waters in boats armed with harpoons.
Until now, hunting for narwhals is allowed for residents of the Far North, but only adult males should be chosen as prey. This is due to the fact that cetaceans and narwhals in particular still play an important role in the lives of these people.
Interesting fact: Narwhal fat is used as fuel for lamps, strong intestines served as the basis for ropes, and crafts and tips for weapons were carved from tusks.
In the 20th century, narwhals were actively exterminated. All sorts of healing properties were attributed to their meat, fat and tusks, which is why narwhals were very much appreciated in the market and sold very expensively. Similar to the fur seals, the market got an oversupply of trophies from narwhals, so they stopped being expensive.
There are still poachers. The number of narwhals has decreased significantly, they are now a protected species. It is strictly forbidden to hunt females and cubs – caught males must be used “without waste”, there is a certain quota for the production of these animals, which is determined by their annual number.
Pollution of the oceans also negatively affects the population. Narwhals are very sensitive to water temperature and purity, so the life expectancy of narwhals living in polluted areas decreases.
The melting of the glaciers provokes a reduction in the food supply of narwhals, which also affects their lives and forces them to migrate to other places where they encounter sharks and killer whales. Thanks to strict protection and constant surveillance of the known narwhal flocks, their numbers are increasing, although they are still catastrophically low.
The narwhal is listed in the Red Book on the territory of Russia as a rare small species, a monotypic genus. The situation is complicated by the fact that narwhals do not tolerate captivity well, so breeding in specialized conditions is impossible.
In February 2019, a group of 32 narwhals was found in the north of the Franz Josef Land archipelago, which included an equal number of males, females and calves. It was discovered by a group of scientists from the project “Narwhal. Legend of the Arctic. This find suggests that the animals have chosen a permanent habitat and breeding area for themselves. Largely due to this group, the number of narwhals in the Arctic is increasing. Scientists continue to monitor these individuals, the flock is protected from poachers.
The results of this expedition are used to study the nuances of the behavior of narwhals in order to further assist in the conservation of the species. There is already information on the approximate abundance, migration patterns, breeding seasons and areas where narwhals are distributed. Research is planned until the winter of 2022. The Institute of Ecology and Evolution Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Gazprom Neft, which is interested in the Arctic Time program, are connected to them.
The narwhal is an amazing and rare animal. They are the only representatives of their kind who lead a secluded, peaceful lifestyle. The forces of scientists and naturalists are concentrated on the conservation of these animals, since the protection of the population in the wild is the only chance to preserve this unique species.