The narwhal is one of the most unique and recognizable creatures in the world. The males are best known for their long, spiraling tusks that project from their heads. But what about the females – do female narwhals have horns too?
In this article, we will explore everything you need to know about female narwhal horns.
An Overview of Narwhals
Before diving into the specifics of female narwhal horns, let’s review some key facts about narwhals in general:
- Narwhals are medium-sized whales that live year-round in the Arctic waters around Greenland, Canada, and Russia.
- They belong to the oceanic dolphin family and are closely related to beluga whales.
- Adult narwhals typically range from 13-18 feet in length. Males weigh up to 4,000 pounds (1,800 kg) while females weigh around 2,200 pounds (900 kg).
- Narwhals feed on fish, shrimp, and squid. They can dive up to 1.2 miles deep when hunting for food.
- The World Wildlife Foundation estimates there are around 170,000 narwhals worldwide. They are considered a threatened species due to hunting and climate change.
- Narwhals are known for their long spiral tusks. Around 95% of male narwhals develop a tusk that projects from their upper left lip as they mature.
- The tusk grows throughout a male narwhal’s life, reaching an average length of 5-10 feet. In rare cases, males may develop two tusks.
- The purpose of the tusk remains somewhat mysterious. Scientists believe it may be used to attract mates, interact with other narwhals, sense water temperature and pressure, or even spear prey.
Now that we’ve covered some narwhal basics, let’s focus our attention on the females and the question of whether they have horns.
Do Female Narwhals Have Tusks?
The simple answer is no – female narwhals do not have tusks like the males. Only around 15% of female narwhals develop what could be considered a “tusk.” When they do, the tusk is much smaller and less prominent than a male’s.
Female narwhals have two small teeth that remain embedded in their skulls. In rare cases, one of these teeth may grow outward a few inches through a female’s lip. But it does not develop into a full-blown tusk. The tooth often remains covered by tissue and is not visible.
Scientists have put forth a few theories about why male and female narwhals have such different tusk growth:
- Sexual dimorphism: The narwhal’s tusk is an extreme example of sexual dimorphism, which is when males and females of a species develop different physical characteristics. The tusk likely evolved to give male narwhals an advantage when competing for mates. The small “tusk” on some females may be vestigial – a leftover trait that no longer serves a purpose.
- Testosterone: Male narwhals produce significantly more testosterone than females, especially during puberty when the tusk is developing. Scientists believe exposure to higher testosterone levels triggers more pronounced tusk growth in males.
- Differences in tooth structure: A recent study compared male and female narwhal tusks on a cellular level. Researchers discovered fundamental differences in how the teeth are formed and supported that allow the male tusk to grow much larger.
In essence, male and female narwhals are anatomically equipped differently when it comes to tusks. The males have physical attributes that enable prominent tusk growth, which female narwhals lack.
Other Unique Female Narwhal Traits
Beyond the lack of a prominent tusk, female narwhals have other subtle physical differences compared to males:
- Size: Adult females reach lengths of around 15 feet, compared to 16-18 feet for adult males. Females also weigh about half as much as males on average.
- Color Patterns: Female narwhals tend to be more uniformly grey, with less mottling patterns on their backs. Males develop more blotchy gray and white pigmentation as they age.
- Dorsal Fin: A female narwhal’s dorsal fin is shorter and less erect than a male’s fin. The top of the female fin may also be rounded.
So, while it’s the striking tusks that garner the most attention, experienced observers can distinguish male from female narwhals by subtle body details as well. The differences reflect their distinct roles and lifestyles.
The Role of Female Narwhals
Female narwhals play a vital role in narwhal pods and communities:
- Childbirth: Female narwhals give birth to calves after 13-16 months of gestation. Newborns are around 5 feet long and weigh 175-200 pounds. Babies depend on their mothers for the first two years of life.
- Caring for young: Females nurse their calves for 20 months – the longest lactation period of any marine mammal. They also watch over young narwhals to keep them safe from predators.
- Leading pods: Mother narwhals often lead groups as they travel and migrate through Arctic seas. Their knowledge is passed down between generations.
- Teaching: Older females share survival skills and good feeding spots with younger narwhals. Their wisdom helps maintain narwhal culture.
- Genetic diversity: Female narwhals mate outside their pods to bring new genes into the group. This helps the small narwhal population stay healthy.
While the flashy tusks draw the most human fascination, female narwhals are critical to maintaining stable populations. Their maternal instincts and leadership help narwhal groups thrive in the Arctic waters.
Can You Tell a Male from A Female Narwhal?
For scientists and native Arctic peoples, there are a few techniques used to distinguish male from female narwhals when observed in the wild:
- Tusk presence: The presence of a long, spiraled tusk is a clear male indicator. Females may have a tiny protrusion but no full tusk.
- Fin shape: The tall, erect dorsal fin with a rounded top is characteristic of mature male narwhals.
- Body scars: Males tend to have more scraped skin and scars from tusk jousting and sparring. Females have fewer signs of aggression.
- Swimming position: Males more commonly swim upside down to display their tusks above the water. Females typically swim right-side up.
- Tail shape: Males have longer, more triangular tail flukes compared to females’ shorter, more rounded flukes.
- Pod position: Males more frequently travel on the outskirts of pods. Females congregate in the middle, nearer to calves.
- Overall size: The larger whale is likely the male. Female narwhals are noticeably smaller in adulthood.
So, while casual observers may struggle, experienced researchers can identify male vs female narwhals with a trained eye if given time to observe behavior and details.
In summary, female narwhals do not possess the iconic long, spiraled tusks that make the males so conspicuous. Only rarely will a female develop an elongated tooth a few feet in length. Normal female anatomy keeps their two small teeth embedded in their skulls. The male narwhal’s tusk is the extreme product of sexual dimorphism at work. While they lack flashy tusks, female narwhals are essential to maintaining narwhal populations. Their intelligence, leadership, and devotion to their young help ensure the survival of these unique Arctic whales.
So in the end, only male narwhals boast the graceful tusks that have fascinated people for centuries. But the females’ wisdom and maternal instincts make them equally important in the narwhal world. Both sexes are superbly adapted to the harsh Arctic environment they call home.