Narwhals are predatory animals. They feed on fish like Atlantic Cod, cephalopods, and crustaceans. The main predators of narwhals are human beings (Reeves & Tracey 1980). Humans used to hunt narwhals for meat and blubber as a source of food and fuel, and their skin and ivory for various other things (Marcoux 2008). Killer whales have been known to drive away narwhals if they get to close, but have not been seen actually hunting and killing narwhals. Sharks and polar bears will sometimes attack narwhals trapped at ice holes or feed on ones that have died there (Reeves & Tracey 1980).

Photo credit: Jeff W. Higdon

            Narwhals rely on ice holes because narwhals, like most aquatic mammals, have a blowhole and need to surface to breathe. This becomes a problem if the narwhals spend too much time in the Arctic Circle before returning south and the water begins to freeze over (Palsbøll et al. 1996). If narwhals become trapped by the ice, they often find themselves having to rely on small openings in the ice to respire. This is called savssats (Palsbøll et al. 1996; Reeves & Tracey 1980). Unfortunately, this makes them easy prey for polar bears and sharks as mentioned before. Additionally, this entrapment also causes many to die of either exhaustion or starvation, giving sharks and other predators in the area a free meal (Reeves & Tracey 1980).

            Narwhals are greatly affected by human shipping traffic. Ships traveling through the water create significant amounts of noise that affects the behavior of narwhals. These noises can affect narwhal travelling direction, the way they surface to breathe, and how they interact with other pods (Marcoux 2008). This noise pollution is particularly damaging when narwhals are hunting for food because they rely on sounds to locate prey. It has also been noted that helicopters flying above narwhals can affect their behavior due to the force of the helicopter on the water (Reeves & Tracey 1980).

            Noise interference from ships or helicopters can also interfere with narwhal communication. Narwhals communicate via two different types of vocalizations. One type is pulsed sounds which, as seen in other marine animals, are thought to be used for echolocation. This would help guide the narwhals as they swim as well as help them locate prey. The second type of vocalization is a mix of whistles and burst-pulsed sounds. These are believed to be used for communication with other narwhals (Marcoux 2008). To hear a recording of some narwhal vocalizations click here.

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Created November 2013.