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In Learn More the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information to expand your knowledge of our featured subjects. Special thanks to the Research Division.
Hunting Narwhals
By David A. O'Connor, National Geographic Staff

Did You Know?

The narwhal is a mysterious whale. It lives in the Arctic’s stormy, ice-covered seas, and the males bear an ivory tusk—one source of medieval stories of the unicorn. Compared with other whales, little is known about narwhals. How many are there? Why do they migrate every year? How long do they live? All these questions remain unanswered.

Even their famous tusk remains an enigma. Some researchers think it may serve a sensory function, discerning water pressure and temperature. Other scientists, however, point out that if that were so, female narwhals would surely have tusks as well, but only a small percentage do. These scientists believe that the tusk may serve a display purpose akin to a lion’s mane or a deer’s antlers, body features that play an important role in dominance struggles between males.

Though many questions remain about narwhals, the deep-diving marine mammals have been enlisted to help solve a different puzzle: climate change. The Arctic Ocean is crucial in regulating climate. Changes in its currents and temperature would have dramatic effects on the climate of northern Europe. But the polar ocean is remote and difficult to study, so this summer scientists are planning to attach satellite tags to narwhals. As the whales migrate to their winter feeding grounds, diving a mile deep in search of food, the satellite tags will send back constant streams of data on ocean temperature, salinity, and depth. This will give scientists crucial information from one of the fastest changing parts of the ocean. It is thought that Arctic waters have been warming and have been diluted with fresh water, which would alter currents and perhaps climate.

Related Links


  • Armitage, Derek R. "Community-Based Narwhal Management in Nunavut, Canada: Change, Uncertainty, and Adaptation." Society and Natural Resources (September 2005), 715-31.
  • Bruemmer, Fred. The Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea. Key Porter Books, 1993.
  • COSEWIC. Assessment and Update Status Report on the Narwhal Monodon monoceros in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, 2004.
  • Heide-Jørgensen, Mads P., and others. "The Migratory Behaviour of Narwhals (Monodon monoceros)." Canadian Journal of Zoology (2003), 1,298-305.
  • Laidre, Kristin L., and Mads P. Heide-Jørgensen. "Arctic Sea Ice Trends and Narwhal Vulnerability." Biological Conservation (2005), 509-17.
  • Lee, David S., and George W. Wenzel. "Narwhal Hunting by Pond Inlet Inuit: An Analysis of Foraging Mode in the Floe-edge Environment." Études Inuit Studies (2004), 133-57.
  • Perrin, W. F., Wursig, B. and Thewissen, J. G. M. (eds) Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Academic Press, 2002.
  • Reeves, Randall R., and Edward Mitchell. "The Whale Behind the Tusk." Natural History (August, 1981).
  • Report of the NAMMCO Workshop to Address the Problems of "Struck and Loss" in Seal, Walrus and Whale Hunting. The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission, November 2006.
  • Report of the NAMMCO Workshop on Hunting Methods. The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission, February 1999.
  • Roberge, M. M., and J. B. Dunn. Assessment of the Subsistence Harvest and Biology of Narwhal (Monodon monoceros L.) From Admiralty Inlet, Baffin Island, N.W.T., 1983 and 1986-89. Canadian Technical Report of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences No. 1747, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, October 1990.
  • Scientific Committee of the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission. Report of the Thirteenth Meeting. North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission, March 2006.
  • Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society Briefing. The Review of Significant Trade in the Narwhal (Monodon monoceros). 20th Meeting of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora Animals Committee, 2004.

NGS Resources

  • Ehrlich, Gretel. “Last Days of the Ice Hunters.” National Geographic (January 2006), 78-101.
  • "Legend of the Unicorn." National Geographic World (December 1986), 4-8.
  • Ford, Deborah. "Narwhal: Unicorn of the Arctic Seas." National Geographic (March 1986), 354-63.
  • Silis, Ivars. "Narwhal Hunters of Greenland." National Geographic (April 1984), 520-39.
  • "Search for the Narwhal." National Geographic World (August 1976), 4-9.