Why Do Narwhals Have Horns? The Science Behind Narwhal Tusks

The narwhal is a medium-sized toothed whale that lives year-round in the Arctic waters around Greenland, Canada, and Russia. Male narwhals are known for their long, spiral tusks (horns) that protrude from their heads from their upper jaw. These tusks are actually modified teeth and can grow up to 10 feet long. So why do narwhals have these unique horns?

Let’s explore some of the reasons behind the narwhal tusk.

© Paul Nicklen. National Geographic Stock 

Why Do Narwhals Have Horns?

Some key reasons why narwhals have developed this unusual feature include:

Sexual Selection

Recent studies found that male narwhals with longer tusks tend to have larger testes. This suggests tusk length signals reproductive fitness to females. Longer tusks may help males compete for and gain access to mates. Females seem to prefer males with more prominent tusks, so sexual selection likely played a key role.

Sensory Perception

The tusk is covered in millions of nerve endings and is extremely sensitive. Narwhals probably use their tusks to detect changes in water temperature, pressure, salinity, and sound. This sensory input could help them find prey, navigate, and communicate. New footage shows narwhals using their tusks while foraging, supporting this sensory role.

Social Hierarchy

The tusk establishes dominance and rank within narwhal herds. Older males with longer tusks tend to be higher ranked. Males often rub tusks in displays of dominance. The tusk facilitates recognition and social bonds between individuals as well.

Other Possible Functions

While less supported by evidence, the tusk may also play roles in breaking sea ice to access air or hunting prey. But the tusk’s fragility makes these uses unlikely to be primary functions. Further research is still needed to fully understand the tusk’s evolutionary purpose in the narwhal’s Arctic habitat.

In summary, the narwhal’s striking horn relates to reproduction, sensory skills, and social status. However, ongoing study of narwhal behavior will likely reveal even more complex functions of this unique structure.

How Did Narwhal Tusks Evolve?

Narwhal tusks evolved over millions of years through a process called natural selection. Natural selection is when organisms with traits that help them in their environment are more likely to survive and have babies. They pass those helpful traits to their babies.

Scientists believe that the narwhal tusk evolved from a pair of incisor teeth that are present in all toothed whales. Over time, one of these teeth became larger and longer, eventually evolving into the tusk we see today.

There are two main evolutionary forces likely drove the gradual development of the narwhal tusk over millions of years:

Sexual Selection

As discussed above, the predominant theory is that male narwhal tusks evolved through sexual selection. In populations where males had slightly longer tusks, they may have had an advantage in securing mates. Females appeared to prefer males with longer tusks, which signaled fitness. These desirable males passed on genes for longer tusks to male offspring. Gradually, tusk length increased each generation.

This type of selection of exaggerated traits, like a peacock’s tail, results from mate choice and male competition. The narwhal tusk demonstrated reproductive advantages for males.

Environmental Adaptation

The harsh Arctic climate also likely influenced tusk evolution. Narwhals with tusks better adapted to their habitat may have had higher survival. For example, tusks may have helped sense changes in water temperature or salinity. If tusks aided in breaking sea ice or accessing air, those traits would also be favored.

The narwhal tusk possibly evolved partly as an adaptation to improve survival in frigid polar waters. Environmental selection could have reinforced growth initiated by sexual selection.

In reality, evolution is complex. So, there is no single answer to the question of how narwhal tusks evolved. It is likely both sexual selection and environmental selection have played a role in shaping the evolution of this unique trait. It is a remarkable example of evolutionary forces shaping a species to its niche.

What Are Narwhal Tusks Made Of?

The narwhal’s striking tusk is not made of typical horn or bone. Rather, it is an elongated upper left canine tooth that grows up to 10 feet long in males. But on the inside, the tusk has a complex anatomy quite unlike regular teeth.

The tusk is made up of layers of specialized tissues and minerals that provide strength and structure. The innermost layer is pulp, which contains nerves and blood vessels supplying the growing tusk. Dentin makes up the majority of the tusk’s mass. Its minerals include calcium and phosphorus which provide hardness.

Unlike most mammalian teeth, the narwhal tusk contains no enamel, the tough outer coating. This lack of enamel is one reason the tusk is prone to cracking and breakage.

On the exterior surface, cementum forms a protective coating over the dentin. Growth lines in the cementum create the tusk’s distinctive spiraling pattern. The outmost layer is keratin, the same material found in fingernails, hair, and animal hooves. This keratin protects the inner tissues from abrasion.

So while often called a “horn”, the narwhal tusk is actually a giant, modified tooth. Its layers of soft pulp, hard dentin, and keratin exterior allow it to grow to exceptional lengths while retaining sensory capabilities through embedded nerves. The unique anatomy of the tusk provides clues to how and why it evolved in male narwhals.

Do Female Narwhals Have Tusks?

In narwhals, it is typically only the males that grow the long, helical tusk for which the species is known. But in rare cases, female narwhals may also develop tusks.

Only about 15% of female narwhals have tusks. When present in females, tusks tend to be shorter, straighter, and less prominent than male tusks.

Scientists believe the development of tusks is related to sexual hormones in narwhals. Males have higher testosterone, which spurs the development of larger tusks. This helps them attract mates and compete with other males as mentioned. Without these pressures, tusks do not grow as extreme in females.

Are Narwhal Tusks Related to Unicorns?

Narwhal tusks are not related to unicorns in the sense that unicorns are mythical creatures.

There is a historical connection between narwhal tusks and legends of unicorns. During medieval times in Europe, narwhal tusks began washing ashore in some areas along with the remains of whales. Tusks also came via trade with other lands like Greenland and Iceland, that had contact with narwhals.

The tusks had an unusual spiral shape. In fact, narwhals were unknown in Europe at the time. So, the tusks were believed by some to have come from a magical horned creature called a unicorn – a magical horse-like creature with a single spiral horn.

Also, descriptions of unicorns from that time matched narwhals, like those living in northern seas.

Norse traders may have tricked Europeans by pretending narwhal tusks were unicorn horns. This made people think narwhals were unicorns in European myths and stories.

In reality, unicorns are mythical, and narwhals are a real Arctic whale species. But the unicorn legend seems to have been inspired by early Europeans encountering narwhal tusks without knowing the true animal source.

This mix-up is why narwhals are sometimes called the “unicorns of the sea” today. While not literal unicorns, narwhals did help shape unicorn mythology in cultures unfamiliar with their distinctive spiral tusks. So, while purely mythical, the unicorn inherited its iconic single horn trait from the very real narwhal whale.

Can a Narwhal Tusk Grow Back?

No, narwhal tusks cannot grow back if broken or removed. Narwhal tusks are actually elongated canine teeth. Once fully grown, adult teeth do not regenerate in narwhals if lost or damaged.

Occasionally, a narwhal may have a second smaller canine tooth that develops into a smaller second tusk. However, if this second tusk is lost or broken, it also will not regrow.

Studies of narwhal tusks showing signs of past breaks or injuries indicate the tusk tip is not replaced once fractured. The whale is left with a shortened, damaged tusk for life.

Young narwhals may continue growing their tusk for many years, making it appear to regrow after a minor break at the tip. But the broken piece is not replaced – the tusk merely continues the existing growth pattern.

Some scientists theorize that if a tusk break occurred early in development before the fusion of the tooth’s growth plates, there may be potential for limited regrowth. But fully mature tusks in adult narwhals do not have the ability to regenerate once broken or removed.

So, while tusk growth continues throughout a narwhal’s life to varying degrees, the broken or lost portion is not restored once the tooth is fully formed. Replacement is not possible for narwhal tusks.

Read Also

Are Narwhals Real? Exploring The Mysterious Unicorn Of The Sea

Are Narwhals Dangerous? Everything You Need To Know

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