Are Narwhals Whales? (Unicorn of the Sea Classification)

The narwhal is one of the most mysterious creatures in the ocean. These unique marine mammals are best known for the striking spiral tusk that emerges from some male narwhals’ heads, earning them the nickname “unicorn of the sea.”

While narwhals share some similarities with other whales, their unique appearance and elusive nature have long raised questions about whether they should actually be classified as whales.

Are Narwhals Whales? Here Is the Answer:

Yes, narwhals are indeed whales. They belong to the cetacean family, which includes all whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Specifically, narwhals are classified as toothed whales in the suborder Odontoceti. Like other whale species, they’re warm-blooded, air-breathing, and marine.

Biologically, narwhals are closely related to belugas, and both species are the sole members of the Monodontidae family. Their biological traits showcase the typical features found in toothed whales, including possessing teeth and echolocation abilities, which they use for navigation and hunting in their Arctic habitat.

Physiologically, narwhals exhibit the distinct mammalian traits characteristic of whales. They are air-breathing, surfacing regularly to breathe through their blowhole. Moreover, despite their habitat in frigid waters, these animals are warm-blooded, maintaining a consistent internal body temperature that is independent of the external environment.

The family Monodontidae showcases two unique creatures of the sea; while belugas are often recognized for their all-white color and adaptability in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, narwhals are sometimes referred to as the “unicorns of the sea” due to their prominent, spiraled tusks, which are actually elongated upper left canine teeth.

In summation, it is accurate to categorize narwhals as whales due to their membership in the toothed whales suborder and their familial link with belugas under the Monodontidae family. These connections highlight the narwhal’s place within the diverse and fascinating group of marine mammals known as cetaceans.

Why Do People Question If They’re Whales?

Narwhals possess a distinctive look that sets them apart from other members of the whale family. At the heart of their unique appearance is the long, helical tusk protruding from their heads, which is a trait not found in any other whale species. This singular characteristic can lead to confusion about their classification and has fueled curiosity and skepticism about whether they belong to the whale family.

Unlike many whale species that are often observed in large groups, narwhals are more solitary in nature. They are known to form small groups but are rarely spotted in large pods, stirring inquiries about their social behavior and how it aligns with that of other whales.

Compounding these questions is the mythology surrounding narwhals. Referred to as the “unicorns of the sea,” they have a storied place in legend due to their tusk, which was once believed to hold magical powers. This infusion of fantasy with reality has made some people question the biological classification of narwhals as whales.

Distinct FeaturesSocial BehaviorMythical Association
Helical tuskSmaller group size“Unicorns of the sea”
Unlike other whalesNot often in large podsLegendary magical qualities

In response to these factors, it is imperative to affirm that despite their unusual appearance and behaviors, narwhals are indeed a species of whale, specifically belonging to the group of toothed whales known as odontocetes.

What Makes a Whale a Whale?

Whales belong to a group of marine mammals known as cetaceans, which fall under the order Cetartiodactyla. This order also encompasses even-toed ungulates, highlighting the whales’ terrestrial ancestry. Although whales are fully aquatic, their evolutionary history connects them to land-dwelling creatures.

Taxonomy of Whales:

  • Order: Cetartiodactyla
    • Suborder: Cetacea
      • Parvorders:
        • Odontoceti (toothed whales)
        • Mysticeti (baleen whales)

Shared Traits of Whale Species:

  • Mammalian Characteristics: Warm-blooded, air-breathing, live births, and nursing their young with milk
  • Adaptations to Marine Life: Streamlined bodies, flippers in place of forelimbs, and blowholes for breathing

Whale Taxonomy and Families:

Cetaceans are divided into two distinct parvorders: Odontoceti, which includes the toothed whales such as dolphins, porpoises, and the sperm whale; and Mysticeti, the baleen whales, which filter feed using baleen plates instead of teeth and include species like the blue whale, humpback whale, and others.

Table Showing Cetacean’s Divisions and Examples:

OdontocetiToothed whalesSperm whale, Dolphin
MysticetiBaleen whalesBlue whale, Humpback whale

Distinguishing whales from other marine creatures is a matter of recognizing these specific traits and understanding their place within the cetacean family. Whether identified by their baleen plates or distinct teeth, each whale species shares a common lineage that uniquely positions them within the aquatic ecosystem.

How Are Narwhals Whales Unique?

The narwhal, a medium-sized whale known for its distinctive physical features, primarily resides in the icy waters of the Arctic. One of its most striking characteristics is the long, spiral tusk protruding from its upper lip, which is, in fact, an elongated tooth with sensory capabilities. This tusk can grow up to 10 feet long and is more commonly found in males. Female narwhals sometimes grow a smaller tusk, but it’s a rare occurrence. This feature contributes significantly to their nickname, the “unicorn of the sea.”

Furthermore, narwhals are relatively small in size compared to other members of the whale family, such as the blue whale or even the closely related beluga whale. These cetaceans typically reach lengths of around 13 to 20 feet when fully grown, which is modest by whale standards.

Equally notable is their limited geographical range. Narwhals have a strong predilection for cold, Arctic environments and are rarely found outside of this habitat. They are adept at navigating the dense sea ice of the Arctic Ocean, which serves as both a shelter and hunting ground. Their specialized habitat requirements underscore their adaptation to some of the most extreme living conditions on the planet.

Do Narwhals Display Typical Whale Behaviors?

Narwhals exhibit several behaviors that are characteristic of whales. These animals are often seen breaching, which is a behavior where they leap out of the water. This acrobatic display is common among various whale species and is thought to serve multiple purposes, such as communication or parasite removal.

Like many of their cetacean relatives, narwhals feed on a diet of marine organisms, including fish, shrimp, and squid. As deep divers, they pursue prey to the icy depths of the Arctic waters where they primarily reside, reaching depths of up to 5,827 feet (1,776 meters) for as long as 25 minutes.

Vocalization is another aspect where narwhals are similar to other odontocetes, a suborder that includes all toothed whales. They communicate using a complex array of clicks, whistles, squeaks, and bangs. These sounds play a crucial role in social interactions and may also facilitate echolocation, helping narwhals navigate their dark and murky underwater environment.

The behaviors of narwhals align with those of other whale species, reinforcing their classification within the cetacean group. Despite their unique tusks, which are actually elongated teeth, they share many commonalities with their whale cousins, confirming their place in the Monodontidae family alongside belugas.


  1. What is a narwhal? NOAA Ocean Exploration. https://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov.
  2. Cetartiodactyla. ScienceDirect. https://www.sciencedirect.com/
  3. Narwhal FAQ. the University of Washington (UW). https://staff.washington.edu.

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