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NARWHAL (Monodon monoceros)

RANGE: Canadian Arctic and western Greenland.

The narwhal—the unicorn of the sea—is best known for the fabled, spiraling tusk of the male which likely signals his social rank. In summer, narwhals rear their calves in nearshore bays and fjords, while in winter narwhals move to traditional offshore areas covered with heavy pack ice, relying on few-and-far-between cracks in the sea ice to breathe. On their wintering grounds, narwhals dive to incredible depths of up to 1,400 meters (4,590 feet) to gorge on two main prey items: Greenland halibut and polar cod. The narwhal is particularly vulnerable to climate change due to its restricted range, specific habitat needs and narrow diet. Decreasing sea-ice cover over its feeding grounds threatens to reduce the abundance of its two primary prey species. As sea-ice cover dwindles, one of the narwhal’s main predators—the killer whale—is increasing in waters that were previously inaccessible due to heavy ice cover. Killer whale sightings have risen exponentially in Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait and Foxe Basin as sea ice has declined. [1] The melting ice is also exposing some narwhal populations to more human hunting. Hunters in West Greenland have been catching significantly more narwhals since 2002 in areas that were previously inaccessible to boats in early summer. [2] In addition, in the presence of killer whales, narwhals will move to shallow waters to avoid depredation, where they are more susceptible to human hunting.

 

1. Higdon, J. W., and S. H. Ferguson. 2009. Loss of Arctic sea ice causing punctuated change in sightings of killer whales (Oricinus orca) over the past century. Ecological Applications 19:1365-1375.
2. Nielsen, M. R. 2009. Is climate change causing the increasing narwhal (Monodon monoceros) catches in Smith Sound, Greenland? Polar Research 28:238-245.

 

Polar bear photo © Jenny E. Ross/ www.jennyross.com