The Narwhal (Monodon monoceros) is an arctic whale, very similar to the Beluga whale. Both have the same body shape, the "melon" at the front of the head, a finless back. The differences are mainly in the coloring, whereas adult belugas are white, the narwhals are mottled.
The most striking feature lacking from the beluga though is the tusk that male narwhals sport. It originates from the upper part of the left jaw into a spiral helix that can be up to 3 meters long.
In medieval times, narwhal tusks were sold as unicorn horns, fetching their weight in gold. It seems that the spiral tusk were the origin of the unicorn myth, not unlike how dinosaur fossils gave rise to dragon myths around the world.
Recently, news stories reported that the Narwhal's tusk is a sensory organ. Electron micrographs revealed tubules extending to the surface of the tusk.
Narwhal In The Mediterranean
The normal habitat of narwhals is the extreme Arctic. In Canada, it is around Baffin Island and the shores of Greenland.
Years ago, I remember a story in Al Ahram, the largest national newspaper in Egypt, about a fisherman in Rashid (رشيد Rosetta) having a large "fish" caught in his net. No one in Rosetta would recognize what it is, so he had it transported to Alexandria's fish market, where a reporter took a picture of it, and published it in the paper.
Experts were called in to give opinions on the "fish", but it seems they were baffled by it, or they were no experts.
In the published photo, it was clear that this is narwhal, because it had the prominent tusk, a unique feature among cetacea.
Regardless, it is amazing that the narwhal was that far away from the normal range of its species.
This is not the first time a whale has strayed into the relatively very shallow Mediterranean. A smallish baleen whale strayed to the shores of Egypt. Its skeleton is preserved in the Hydrobiological Museum in Alexandria.
- Wikipedia article on Narwhal.
- Scientific American article on Narwhal's Tusk.
- Article and Photo gallery on Narwhals and their tusks at the National Geographic.
- An older article also at the National Geographic on the decline of Narwhal population.
- Slashdot discussion on the Narwhal Tusk news.
- Narwhal.org: a site on Narwhal Tusk Discoveries.