Freeze And Flee: Narwhals In Danger

Dec 15, 2017 By Anisha C, Writer Intern
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The unicorns of the sea, also known as narwhals, are majestic and graceful ocean-dwellers that have captured the love of the world.

But they are in danger from the worst villains possible: their own bodies.

Scientists have discovered that the narwhals have a unique survival instinct that is built into their genes. This may be even more harmful as humans encroach into their homes.    

“Corpse Whales”

Narwhals (Monodon monoceros) are part of the toothed-whale family.

The name narwhal means “corpse whale” in Old Norse, because of their skin color. They are related to bottlenose dolphins, belugas, and orcas. It is estimated that there are 10,000 to 45,000 narwhals in the world, maybe even as many as 80,000. These pale blue and grey porpoises live in the Arctic coastal waters and in the Arctic seas.

One of their most prominent features is their pointy tusk, which is actually an ivory tooth. These tusks are most prominent in males, while females have smaller ones. This tusk closely resembles a mythical unicorn horn, with spirals that can grow up to 8.8 feet!

Narwhals live in very cold, icy waters and are protected by the layers of blubber underneath their skin. They spend winters in deep waters under ice, and then move to shallow ice-free waters for the summers, but never really stray far from the ice. Unfortunately, because of global warming, there is less ice for them to live by. As ocean waters become more exposed, the narwhals are now at risk from a greater number of predators.

Their Own Worst Enemy

A narwhal’s survival instinct can be just as harmful as the predator. Why? When a narwhal senses danger and becomes afraid, it tries to swim away quickly to escape, but its heart rate goes down significantly. If this is a bit confusing, imagine this: when a human tries to run away from danger, their heart rate increases so that there is enough oxygen in their body. But when a narwhal tries to swim away, their heart rate slows down, and they don’t get enough oxygen in their blood which makes them dizzy.

So why does this happen to a narwhal? Scientists still haven’t figured that out, but they are doing extensive research by partnering up with hunters to monitor the narwhals. Instead of killing the narwhals, they capture them, tag them and release them back into the sea. This is good, but human development may harm more narwhals before any important discoveries are made.

When narwhals sense an orca or another sea creature, they don’t feel endangered and know how to deal with the situation. But when they hear boats, humans, and/or machines, they panic and flee, which is highly dangerous for them. They also have to swim farther for safety with their ice sanctuaries melting.

Hopefully, we can learn more about the narwhals in time to save them from us, and themselves.