XXXVIII: The Majestic Sea-Unicorn

If there were ever a creature whose thoroughly-proven existence is still a little hard to believe, it would be the narwhal. Or maybe the sea pig. But that’s not the point.

Anyhoo, the majestic narwhal, first described in a scientific text in 1758, grows to be from 13 to 18 feet long and between 1,800 and 3,500 pounds. Its scientific name, Monodon monoceros, means “one-horn one-tooth”. Again with the creative naming.

They live the arctic waters around Greenland, Canada, and Russia, feeding mostly on a variety of polar fish, including arctic cod and Greenland halibut as well as a variety of small squid. Their most famous characteristic, the large tusk on their faces, is actually a left canine tooth that protrudes from the upper jaw and through the lip with a left-handed helix spiral. It grows to be 5 to 10 feet long and an average of 22 pounds. The tusks are present in 100% of males and 15% of females, and about 1 in 500 males have two tusks. The tusk is a secondary sexual characteristic (like a peacock’s tail) used to determine social rank, although there is one documented instance of a narwhal using its tusk as a weapon against a beluga whale. The tusk is filled with nerves that allow the narwhal to better sense its environment.

The narwhal is unique among cetaceans in its hunting methods. It doesn’t really hanse much in terms of teeth, so it tends to sneak up on unsuspecting fish and suck them forcefully into their mouths. It’s possible that beaked whales also hunt this way.

Back in the day, when people were all in a tizzy about unicorns and whatnot, you could find narwhal horns being sold as unicorn horns. People thought they had the magical powers to counteract poison, and the horns were often sold by Vikings to inhabitants of more southern areas for the horns’ weight in gold. In 1555, a drawing by Olaus Magnus identified a fish-like creature with a large horn as a “Narwal”, and in the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I received a bejeweled narwhal horn worth about $2.4-4 million in today’s currency from Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who said it came from a “sea-unicorne”.

In general, the narwhal is a pretty darn cool critter, a central figure everything in curiosity cabinets of old and modern animated songs. It is majestic, it is mysterious, and it is pretty silly-looking.

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