Narwhals: Will Climate Change Doom the Unicorns of the Sea?

Narwhals are one of the strangest animals on the planet. With their distinctive long horn, these arctic marine mammals are often compared to the mythical unicorn.

But narwhals are very different from fictional horned equines. These fascinating animals have had an interesting place in history, but the future of their species and their Arctic home may be uncertain.

Here’s everything you need to know about narwhals, the unicorns of the sea.

What are narwhals? Are narwhals real?

Yes, narwhals are real. The species known as the narwhal is, in fact, a type of whale and is a close relative of the beluga.

Narwhal tusk (illustrative). (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

However, what sets them apart from their cousins ​​is their fangs. Male narwhals have a long horn-shaped tusk that protrudes from the front, which is in fact an elongated canine tooth.

These tusks are straight and spiral-shaped, reaching around 1.5 to 3 meters long and weighing around 10 kilograms. These are mainly in males, although some females have been seen with fangs, and some males have even been seen with two fangs. Only one case of a female narwhal with two tusks has been recorded.

These fangs serve a variety of purposes, and while they are commonly thought to be used as weapons or as a means for males to fight each other, the fangs are actually used as a sense organ, although they can also be used for communication. Tusks also play a prominent role in aiding hunting, although they stun prey rather than impale them. However, as females normally lack fangs but live longer than males, it is impossible for fangs to fulfill any essential and vital function necessary for survival.

Where do narwhals live? What do they eat?

Narwhals live in the Arctic Ocean, although they are often concentrated in specific inlets and fjords.

Its diet consists of marine life, but it is very specific, mainly shrimp, cuttlefish, cod and halibut.

These animals tend to live for around 50 years on average, although some believe that, in theory, they can live for more than 100 years.

The main threats they face are predators such as killer whales and Greenland sharks. However, they are also actively hunted by humans, who tend to sell the skin, teeth, and fangs while eating the meat.

Unicorn (illustrative).  (credit: PXFUEL)Unicorn (illustrative). (credit: PXFUEL)

Are narwhals unicorns?

No, but many people throughout history have fallen for that scam.

In the Middle Ages, many in Europe believed that narwhal tusks were the horns of the legendary unicorn. As such, they were often attributed mystical properties, such as the ability to neutralize poisons. These tusks could be sold for large sums and were sought after by many wealthy Europeans. Among the most famous is a tusk given to Queen Elizabeth I, which was carved and covered with jewels and was said to be worth the price of a castle.

What is the relationship between narwhals and climate change?

Narwhals are animals that thrive in the cold. However, climate change has made them need to adapt, as the Arctic Ocean is warming faster than the rest of the planet.

But while they are undoubtedly adjusting, they are not doing too well.

Scientists have already noted that the mercury count in narwhals has increased over the years, as is the case with other Arctic predators. Their diet is changing as well, with Arctic sea ice declining forcing them to search for prey in the open ocean.

The presence of mercury is of particular concern. The element is a neurotoxin and is known to move up the food chain when an animal eats another animal that has mercury, and then eats it along with that mercury, and so on.

This happens with polar bears, but their mercury can be expelled into their fur. Narwhals are hairless and their relatively long lives have made their mercury levels especially dangerous.

“For an animal that lives a long time, these whales can live more than 50 years, they are accumulating mercury year after year,” said McGill University wildlife toxicologist Jean-Pierre Desforges, author of a study on the subject published in March 2021 in the academic journal Current biology. “That’s why they reach really high levels, and of course that’s what we are concerned about. If these levels are high enough, they could have a negative effect on the species. ”

The change in diet is also concerning, as fish from the open ocean are less nutritious than the traditional Arctic prey of narwhals.

Narwhals are not currently considered endangered, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature has categorized them as “of least concern” due to recent estimates that their world population is around 170,000.

But as climate change continues to worsen, only time will tell what the future holds for the unicorns of the sea.

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