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The Narwhal  copyright stan klos

The Narwhal.
Genus Monodon.

The Narwhal copyright STan Klos



The strange-looking animal commonly known as the narwhal (Monodon vnonoceros) differs from all other members of the family by the enormous spirally twisted tusk projecting from one side of the upper jaw of the male. This tusk is nearly always that of the left side, its fellow on the opposite side being only a few inches in length, and lying entirely concealed within the bone of the jaw, while in the females both tusks remain in a similar rudimentary condition. The developed tusk of the male is composed solely of ivory, and its spiral twist always runs from left to right. In form it is cylindrical, and tapers more or less markedly from root to tip. Not infrequently the tusk attains a length of from 7 to 8 feet, or more than half that of the entire animal. Very rarely narwhals are met with in which the right tusk is developed as well as the left, but there appears to be no known instance of the right tusk being developed while the left remains rudimentary; and it is noteworthy that when the right tusk is developed it has the same left-to-right twist as its fellow. A fine narwhal's skull with two tusks is preserved in the Cambridge Museum. Apart from a few small rudimentary ones, which are irregular in their occurrence, the male narwhal has no teeth except the tusk, while the female—save for similar rudiments—is toothless.

Although the presence of the tusk in the male narwhal, and the practically toothless condition of the female, are alone sufficient to distinguish the genus from all other dolphins, it is necessary to say something further regarding the form and structure of this singular animal. In the first place, the narwhal belongs to a group of dolphins characterized by their blunt and rounded heads, in which the muzzle shows no sign of being produced into a beak. A special character of the animal is to be found in the absence of a back-fin, which is represented merely by a low- and ill-defined ridge. The flippers are short, wide, and rounded. In color the narwhal is dark grey or dusky above and white beneath, the back and sides being irregularly mottled with various shades of grey. The entire length may vary from 12 to about 16 feet. A tusk measuring 8 feet in length had a basal girth of 71 inches.

The narwhal resembles the Greenland whale in being an inhabitant of the icy polar seas, and like that species is circumpolar in its
distribution; it is, however, apparently local in its range, being, according to Captain Scammon, but rarely found in the seas accessible to the whalers who pass through the Behring Strait. Although seldom occurring to the south of the 65th parallel of north latitude, there are three instances (one in 1648, a second in 1800, and a third eight years later) of narwhals visiting the British coasts. From the extreme rarity of such occurrences, there is, however, no doubt that the individuals in question had been carried by currents out of their proper habitat. From constant persecution, the numbers of the narwhal have been greatly reduced in the more accessible portions of its habitat; and according to Baron Noidenskiold, it is now never seen on the coasts of Novaia Zemlia. It is, however, more common at Hope Island, and large herds are reported from the seas between Spitzbergen and Novaia Zemlia. It is noteworthy that fossil remains of the narwhal have been found in the so-called forest-bed of the Norfolk coast,—a deposit laid down before the great cold of the glacial period, but when the temperature may have been steadily lowering, whereby Arctic animals were enabled to leave their more northerly haunts.



Of the habits of narwhals, unfortunately very little is known. They are generally found in small schools, comprising from fifteen to twenty individuals; and were described long ago by Scoresby as. being extremely playful in their disposition. Much has been written as to the use of the characteristic tusk, but nothing very definite has yet been ascertained with regard to it. That it is not employed for the purpose of procuring food, is perfectly evident from the fact of its absence in the female. A more probable suggestion is that it is used by the males in combats among themselves for the possession of the females; in which case it should be regarded as a sexual appendage, analogous to the antlers of the deer. The food of the animal is stated to be mainly composed of cuttles and various crustaceans, together with small fishes. As a rule, but a single young is produced at a birth, but an instance of twins is on record.

The narwhal is valued both for its ivory and its oil; the latter products being of superior quality to ordinary whale-oil. The ivory of the tusk is very dense in structure, and of a pure creamy-white colour; but since the tusk is hollow throughout the greater part of its length, its value is much less than it would be otherwise. The price of narwhal tusks, although very variable is, however, considerable.


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