What is a Narwhal? Are They Whales?

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Narwhals are iconic sea creatures that inhabit the Arctic region. They are notorious for their long tusk, which has given them the name “unicorn of the sea”. Despite the historic references to their magical powers, narwhals are real animals that are alive today.

Narwhals are marine mammals and are related to dolphins and whales. Narwhals are toothed whales and are one of two living animals within their family. Despite this, their population is not particularly threatened with extinction.

Keep on reading to learn more about narwhals and their history. You will be surprised to hear about possible hybrids with other marine mammals.

Are Narwhals Marine Mammals?

Yes, a narwhal is a marine mammal, related to dolphins, beluga whales, and porpoises. Like other mammals, including us humans, marine mammals can not breathe underwater, so Narhwals breathe air through their lungs1 (source: Whale and Dolphin Conservation). They use their tusk to break through the sea ice to reach the surface for oxygen.

A marine mammal is an animal which depends on the marine ecosystem to survive. They are warm-blooded animals which have developed their own behaviours by adapting to their habitat. Their diet ranges from small zooplankton to other marine mammals2 (source: Wikipedia).

Left: Narwhal / Right: Beluga Whale

Are Narwhals Whales?

Yes, a narwhal is a whale, they belong to the ‘toothed whale’ family. Other toothed whales within include sperm whales, orcas and pilot whales. As you may have guessed from their name, toothed whales do have teeth so they are able to eat prey such as fish and squid3 (sources: ITIS and Wikipedia).

This is different to baleen whales which do not have teeth and eat by filter-feeding, so are limited to plankton and smaller fish.

Toothed whales also have streamlined bodies which allow them to travel up to speeds of 20 knots.

Narwhals conform to many of the features that we’d expect from a typical whale, such as having an excellent hearing ability and a thick layer of blubber (fat) which allows them to stay warm in cold waters. However, one unexpected feature is their large tusk.

The reason narwhals have a tusk is to break through sea ice to breathe oxygen from the air. They may also use it for eating but it is rarely used for conflict.


What Family Does A Narwhal Belong To?

Narwhals are from the family ‘Monodontidae’ which is more commonly known as ‘white whales’. There are only two living members of this family: the narwhal, and the beluga whale. There are at least four extinct species within this family.

The common features of living white whales include being carnivorous, having a reduced number of teeth (despite being a toothed whale), being highly vocal, and being relatively small (3-5 meters in length).

As well as their size, one key difference separating white whales from other types of whales is the lack of a true dorsal fin which is replaced by a much more pronounced ridge along their back.

White whales (narwhals and beluga whales) are closely related to dolphins and porpoises. Together, the three families comprise the superfamily ‘Delphinoidea’ which is the largest group of toothed whales4 (source: Wikipedia).


Is It Narwhal Or Narwhale?

Generally, “narwhal” is used more frequently than “narwhale” but either of these words is accepted. To specifically refer to the narwhal species, it can be more appropriate to refer to it using its scientific name Monodon monoceros.


Why Are Narwhals Called Narwhals?

The name ‘narwhal’ was created by combining the Old Norse words “nár” which translates to “corpse” and ‘hval’ which means whale.

Essentially, ‘Narwhal’ means ‘corpse whale’ which refers to both the grey, mottled coloration of the animal, and the way they rest around near the water’s surface giving them a corpse-like appearance.

The latter behavioural trait is known as ‘logging’ and it’s a whale equivalent to sleeping so that they can rest their brain5 (source: M. P. Heide-Jørgensen and K.L. Laidre, Greenland’s Winter Whales: The beluga, the narwhal, and the bowhead whale, 2006).


Related Questions

Is A Narwhal A Real Animal Or Mythical?

The narwhal is a real animal. Despite references to it being the “unicorn of the sea”, and historic misconceptions of having magical powers. The narwhal tusks were believed to have the power of neutralizing position and thus were gifted to various monarchies and people of importance. This made them very valuable for Vikings to trade6 (sources: Wikipedia and Measuringworth).

Are Narwhals Related To Dolphins?

Yes, narwhals are related to some dolphins. Narwhals and dolphins are mammals and are from the same suborder (Odontoceti). However, the narwhal is from the family Monodontidae, and dolphins are from the family Delphinidae7 (source: ITIS).

Do Narwhals Still Exist?

Yes, narwhals do still exist. They are not mythical creatures, despite being referred to as “unicorns of the sea”, and historic references to their supposed ‘magic powers’8 (source: Wikipedia).  Narwhals are not extinct in the wild. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the global population was estimated at 123,000 in 20179 (source: IUCN).

What Is A Group Of Narwhals Called?

A group of narwhals is called a “pod” or sometimes a “blessing”. If narwhals congregate, they are usually found in groups of five to ten individuals. Many groups of narwhals can congregate in numbers of over 1,000 individuals10 (source: D.W. Macdonald and P. Barrett, Mammals of Europe, 1993).

Is A Narwhal A Fish?

No, a narwhal is not a fish. A narwhal is a marine mammal. One key difference is that marine mammals do not have gills to allow them to breathe underwater, whereas fish do11 (source: Wikipedia).

Are Narwhals Amphibians?

No, a narwhal is not an amphibian. A narwhal is a marine mammal. One key difference is that marine mammals are warm-blooded, whereas amphibians are not.

What is a Baby Narwhal Called?

A baby narwhal is called a calf, similar to other mammals.

Are Narwhals the Same as Beluga Whales?

No, narwhals are not the same as beluga whales although they are both marine mammals from the same family of white whales (Monodontidae). There is some evidence of a narwhal-beluga hybrid based on DNA analysis from a skill obtained around 199012 (source: M. Skovrind, Scientific Reports, Vol 9, Article No. 7729, 2019).

Ryan Charles

Ryan is a research scientist with a MSc in marine biology from Bangor University. His research focuses on developing an understanding of threatened species to assist conservation efforts. He is particularly interested in sharks and their relatives, alongside whales and other marine mammals.