All narwhals have two teeth in their upper jaw. After the first year of a male narwhal's life, its left tooth grows outward, spirally. This long, single tooth projects from its upper jaw and can grow to be 7-10 feet (2-3 m) long. Tusks are usually twisted in a counterclockwise direction and have a hollow interior. The tusk's function is uncertain, perhaps used as a formidable jousting weapon in courtship and dominance rivalry, in obtaining food, and/or for channeling and amplifying sonar pulses (which they emit). The tusk is not used in hunting. Long ago, narwhal sightings reinforced (or started) the unicorn legends.


The narwhal was one of two possible explanations of the giant sea phenomenon written by Jules Verne in his book, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The other possible explanation was a man made vessel but that was not likely in the opinion of the narrator. Herman Melville wrote a section on the narwhal in Moby Dick, in which he claims that a narwhal tusk hung for "a long period" in Windsor Castle after Sir Martin Frobisher had given it to Queen Elizabeth.

Narwhals can grow to be about 16 feet (4.9 m) long (not counting the tooth), and weigh about 1.8 tons (1.6 tonnes). Females are slightly smaller, averaging about 13 feet (4 m) long, and weighing 1 ton (0.9 tonnes). At birth, narwhals are about 5 feet (1.5 m) long and 175 pounds (80 kg).

Narwhal means "corpse whale" in Old Norse; this is perhaps a description of their skin, which is bluish-gray with white blotches (young narwhals are brown). Narwhals have a cylindrical body (with no dorsal fin) and a round head with a small mouth on their blunt snout. This compact body shape plus a thick layer of blubber retains heat in the icy Arctic waters in which they live.

Found primarily in Canadian Arctic and Greenlandic waters rarely south of 65°N latitude, the narwhal is a uniquely specialized Arctic predator. In the winter, it feeds on benthic prey, mostly flatfish, at depths of up to 1500 m under dense pack ice.

Narwhal have been harvested for over a thousand years by Inuit people in Northern Canada and Greenland for meat and ivory and a regulated subsistence hunt continues to this day. While populations appear stable, the narwhal has been deemed particularly vulnerable to climate change due to a narrow geographical range and specialized diet.