Climate Spotlight: Narwhal

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Have you ever heard of the “unicorn of the sea?” Unlike its mythical land dwelling counterpart, the narwhal is a very real species; a unique type of toothed whale known for the large tusk protruding from its head. A Narwhal’s tusk is actually an enlarged tooth that can grow up to 9 feet or more, complete with about 10 million nerve endings. Males utilize the tusk for friendly contact, dueling, or cleaning. Female narwhals rarely have a tusk. Narwhals are a migratory species that live in the Atlantic and Russian Arctic. During the summer they tend to stay near the shore before migrating below pack ice for the winter months.

In the Narwhal’s icy habitat, the simple but essential act of breathing can be a challenge. Narwhals are dependent on the presence of holes in sea ice, which provide a place to breath and rest in an otherwise ice-covered ocean. Climate change may be interfering with the ability of Narwhals to locate these critical ice holes. Additionally, increasing temperatures may alter the timing of Narwhal migrations, causing this marine mammal to stay in their summer territory for too long. When they finally begin to migrate, many of the ice holes on their migratory route will have closed, leading to entrapment and death of Narwhals. As ice holes become too distant from one another, Narwhals are left to either drowning while attempting to find another ice hole, or starve to death remaining at an existing hole. Increasing mortality, or death rate, is concerning for Narwhals because of their low fecundity, or reproductive rate.

A lone narwhal is spotted in this image captured by a survey plane. In this extreme environment, the narwhal is surrounded by ice of varying density. Image from:

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This has been On the Ocean, a program made possible by the Department of Oceanography and a production of KAMU-FM on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. For more information and links, please go to and click On the Ocean.

Script Authors: Chris Coffman and David Dodge

Contributing Professor: Dr. Lisa Campbell

Editor: James M. Fiorendino