Unicorn of the Sea – the Narwhal

by: Davis Yancy Clegg




Widely – yet incorrectly – believed to be a character introduced in Greek mythology, The Unicorn, an equine-like creature, was first documented in early natural history. It came to be known as a symbol of purity. If you wanted any shot at catching the absurdly illusive creature, you yourself had to be a symbol of purity. Yep, only virgins could capture the woodland creature. The common imagery when thinking of a unicorn’s horn is a long, spiraled, pointed object. To create the appearance that unicorns were a reality.

Narwhal tusk

Tusk of a Narwhal

Renaissance merchants would sell their “horns” at market, profiting from a complete fabrication. The product sold at markets was not a horn, but a tusk of a Narwhal. Convenient for the substantiation of the unicorn’s existence, the mammalian anomaly’s tusk was also spiral in shape. The real unicorn was not a white horse galloping through the forest. Rather, it’s existence came at the exploitation of a whale hidden beneath the mysteries of the ocean, not well understood in the Renaissance era. As the term suggests, the tusk is not a horn, but a very long tooth. The Narwhal’s tusk can reach lengths of up to eight feet. The whale’s total body length reaches anywhere between 15 and 17 feet at maturity.

So, what use would a whale have for such an elongated tooth? While centuries of research yielded no evidence of what the tusk’s purpose might be, the turn of the new Millennium held some direction to the answers scientists had around the globe have pursued relentlessly. As scientific research resources evolved, studies began to show that the Narwhal tusk was more than just a tooth. It also serves as an antenna of sorts. With over 10 million nerve endings lining the entirety of the mammal’s tusk, a number of fundamental survival needs are met through its use. Narwhal spend their entire lives in the Canadian arctic waters, never migrating to warmer waters. There was much debate that carrying on among scientists as to the exact purpose of the protruding tooth. Since the discovery of the tusk being a tooth, several theories have come into the debate of its’ purpose. Many of which conclude the tusk is a sensory organ. If correct, these organs do not have to exhibit just one, single function. Given the channels located on the tooth that lead inner layers of the tooth, water is allowed to travel in through these canals. Through these channels, the Narwhal is able to detect the changes in inhabited waters’ salinity, helping them to navigate treacherous waters in the arctic environment. The sensory organ also may help the mammal to detect nearby food that is consistent with its specific diet.

One final theory is that based on a gender study. Evident through the study of large Narwhal populations (reaching a sum of nearly 100,000) has shown that males are the only ones to have the outrageously long tusk. Females have a much shorter version. Like a deer would use its’ antlers, a theory from the study is that the tusk serve as a Narwhal dating service. Dependent upon the females for continued existence, bold gestures from males hoisting their tusks are made to impress nearby females. Regardless of its’ exact purpose to the Narwhal directly, it has certainly served in the debunking of one of the earliest bloopers in recorded natural history. Unicorns make for great storytelling, but all good stories must come to an end.


There are no narwhales nor unicorns in our area.  All we have are wild horses on Cumberland Island. See for yourself,  join our Cumberland Island Tour, one of our most popular tours. (more…)




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