• Weird Nature

19 Bizarre Things You Didn't Know About Narwhals

Let's face it: narwhals are weird. What is a narwhal, anyway? It's like a unicorn mixed with a whale, right? Like the similarly bizarre duck-billed platypus, narwhals appear to be some kind of odd hiccup of evolution, like something went terribly wrong, and boom: narwhals. In fact, a shocking number of people don't even think they're real!

Why the confusion? Here are some quick narwhal facts that help explain why people can't believe these crazy beasts exist: the giant "horn" looks just like the classic idea of what a unicorn's horn looks like, you can't find narwhals at any aquariums or zoos, and they live in some of the coldest, most remote places on earth. That's why people think they're fake. 

So what are narwhal horns made of? The "horn" is actually a tooth, so... tooth stuff. Narwhal tusks are actually inside-out, with the hardest layers on the inside and the softest on the outside. That's the opposite of how human teeth are formed. As for the unicorn confusion, that stems from Vikings selling narwhal horns as "unicorn horns" to gullible medieval Europeans. Read on for more facts about narwhals that will help clear things up. Spread the word: they're real!
Photo:
  • Some Narwhals Have Two Tusks

    Most male narwhals (and 3 percent of females) have one giant nine-foot-long tusk - which is actually a left canine tooth - sticking out of their mouths. That's pretty weird, eh? What's weirder is that the right canine tooth usually doesn't stick out, but instead remains embedded in the narwhal's skull. When it does stick out, however, you get a rare two-tusked narwhal.
  • Narwhal Tusks May Actually Be Sensory Organs

    Photo: Jeslettt / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Scientists don't know for sure what, exactly, a narwhal uses its tusk for, but some of the latest research suggests it may be a sensory organ. A narwhal's tusk is heavily enervated, meaning it's super-sensitive. This makes researchers think narwhals may use their tusks as built-in weather stations, detecting changes in temperature and barometric pressure.

    Rubbing tusks together may also be a pleasurable activity for male narwhals. They may also be used for mating rituals with females.

  • Narwhals Have No Visible, Useful Teeth In Their Mouths

    A narwhal's giant, protruding tooth is definitely its most distinguishing feature, but did you know that narwhals don't use that tooth at all for eating? Narwhals actually have to eat their food whole because they don't have any useful teeth in their mouth. The only teeth they have besides the giant tusk-tooth are vestigial, meaning they're totally useless.

    Scientists are baffled as to why a narwhal would evolve to have one giant external tooth instead of 30-40 internal teeth.

  • No One Has Ever Seen A Narwhal Eat

    Photo: BioDivLibrary / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Scientists only know what narwhals eat (halibut, cod, shrimp, squid, and not much else) because they have examined the contents of their stomachs. Otherwise, they wouldn't know for sure because no one has ever seen a narwhal eat.

    Narwhals eat, we assume, at great depths in total blackness, underneath great sheets of ice, so humans have never witnessed them feeding.