Top ten animals – #8, Narwhal

I was surprised by how many cetaceans made it into my longlist. Part of it, perhaps, is that the difficulty of seeing marine animals adds to their desirability. And of course a lot of whales are *big*. Anyway, I considered Blue Whale, Killer Whale, Beluga, and Sperm Whale, and though Sperm Whale came closest (Moby Dick!) in the end, I went for the Narwhal, Monodon monoceros.

By whale standards, it’s not that big – the body’s only 4-5m [only!] – although the male’s tusk can add another 3m. What an extraordinary thing, though, that long, spiralling tooth. We tend to imagine that narwhal tusks were taken as unicorn horns because of a coincidental similarity; that one long spiralling ‘horn’ was assumed to be another. But actually, that form, the long helical tooth, is pretty much unique to narwhals. All those medieval images of unicorns were derived from the narwhal horns.

Another picture:

These are really special animals.

4 replies on “Top ten animals – #8, Narwhal”


It’s slightly odd that the tusk should be almost entirely male, if it’s functional (though some females have them, apparently). Perhaps it’s something that originally evolved as a male sexual display and is now in the process of being co-opted into a different function. Or whatever. An elogated sensory organ is a parallel with things like the Sawfish and the Duck-billed Platypus, of course.

I just want to see a narwhal.

I’ve seen a lot of different kinds of whales in the wild. And I’ve kayaked up close enough to a killer whale that if I wasn’t so awestruck I couldn’t move at all, I could have leaned over and touched one. But I’ve never seen a narwhal.

Or a unicorn, either.


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