What Do Narwhals Eat?

Written by Peralee Knight
Published: January 12, 2022
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Narwhals are easily one of the most unique and beloved animals in the world. Research of narwhals in the wild has uncovered a lot about this beloved animal. This includes the species-specific dietary needs required for survival and a host of fascinating physical adaptations for finding their food. Time to dig in and learn all about what foods the narwhal eats!

Despite their popularity, much about this marine mammal dubbed the unicorn of the seas is still unknown. The unforgiving Arctic and North Atlantic habitats of this species make it incredibly difficult to observe in the wild. Additionally, every attempt made to study the narwhal in captivity has failed.

What Does The Narwhal Eat? 

What Do Narwhals Eat
Narwhals are carnivores that hunt live prey. The narwhal eats a specific diet and can’t survive in captivity.

A-Z-Animals.com

Narwhals are carnivores that hunt live prey and have highly specialized dietary needs. They eat halibut, cod, squids, shrimp, and other marine life. This is a major factor that contributes to their inability to survive in captivity. The narwhal’s natural habitats are the cold Atlantic and Arctic oceans from Canada to Russia and Norway. They also migrate to coastal waters in summer and deep water in the winter. This migratory pattern heavily influences the narwhal’s diet and survival in the overly sensitive environment the species thrives in.

Narwhals are large marine mammals that resemble small whales. Between 13-20 feet long and an average of 1.5 tons, they are the size of a bus. That does not include the tusk, which can grow up to ten feet long!

The Complete Narwhal Diet 

Research and observation of narwhals in their natural habitat are difficult. Unsuccessful attempts to keep this species in captivity have determined that their diet is specialized. The species is highly dependent on prey that is only found in the icy northern waters they call home. 

Narwhal prey consists of species endemic to its natural habitat. This consists primarily of Greenland halibut, polar and Arctic cod, rockfish, flounder, Gonatus squid, and other native fish. Additionally, they will occasionally consume small crustaceans, shrimp, and smaller cephalopods as well. 

How Much Do Narwhals Eat? 

Narwhals are one of the largest marine mammals found in their natural habitat. Due to their immense size, they can consume copious amounts of food during their most active periods. On average, narwhals eat between 20 and 25 pounds of food a day.

What Do Baby Narwhals Eat? 

Narwhal couple, two Monodon monoceros swimming together in the ocean
Narwhal couple, two Monodon monoceros swimming together in the ocean

Baby narwhals are referred to as calves. Much about the reproductive cycle of the species is still unknown. Narwhals are difficult to observe in the wild and they are unable to survive for long in captivity. 

Narwhals are marine mammals that birth live young, and narwhal calves canto swim almost immediately after being born. Female narwhals have one or two calves at a time and produce milk rich in fat. Calves will nurse for up to two years while learning to hunt to ensure healthy development. Once weaned, juvenile narwhals hunt alongside the adult members of their pod. 

Do Narwhals Compete With Other Animals For Food? 

As one of the largest predators in their natural habitat, the narwhal has few competitors for food. Primary competitors for prey are larger whales and sharks, and in coastal migratory paths, they may also compete with polar bears and walruses

Do Narwhals Change Their Diet By Season? 

The season and many experts heavily impact the narwhal dietary habits believe that the species developed its seasonal eating patterns in response to the summer migratory feeding patterns of other whale species. 

Narwhals feed intensely during the winter months and consume the highest quantity of their prey during this seasonal period. During the warmer summer season, the narwhal eats extraordinarily little. It relies primarily on fat storage in the form of thick layers of blubber to survive. 

This migratory seasonal feeding pattern is the opposite of the migratory patterns of other marine mammals in the summer season. The narwhal may have developed this adaptation to avoid competition, though this has yet to be confirmed.

How Do Narwhals Hunt? 

Narwhals travel and hunt in groups of up to twenty members called pods. They use a complex combination of whistles, clicks, and knocking sounds using chambers located near the blowhole. Using this form of communication in addition to echolocation, narwhals hunt together to find prey and avoid predators. 

Gender and narwhal calves also separate narwhal pods are grouped with the females. The reason for this split may be to protect smaller females and calves. But the actual reason for this split group formation has not been conclusively determined. 

Narwhals are capable of some of the deepest dives ever documented by marine mammals. Narwhals can dive over 5,000 feet to capture prey. The narwhal is also able to shut down all bodily functions not needed while diving including the need to breathe. This allows narwhals to go up to 30 minutes without the need to surface for air. It also keeps them warm while hunting. 

The use of the animal’s tusk might be a tool for echolocation. But this is a subject that is hotly debated among narwhal experts and researchers. Currently, there is not enough data to support this theory. The reason for the narwhal tusk is one of many questions we still have about the species. 

The narwhal’s tusk is believed to be the evolutionary result of an ingrown tooth. But they do not have teeth in their mouths. Once prey is detected, narwhals produce a vacuum-like suction to pull the food into their mouths and swallow it whole. 

Do Narwhals Have Natural Predators? 

With its immense size, the narwhal only has a few natural predators to contend with. The primary predators encountered by this species in the wild consist of larger whales, sharks, and humans. Occasionally, narwhals that become trapped within shallow pools and become prey for polar bears and walruses as well. 

Narwhals use echolocation to detect approaching predators. When approached male narwhals rotate and move their tusks to intimidate the predator rather than attempt an attack. Otherwise, narwhals evade predators using their deep-diving abilities or by avoiding areas these predators regularly frequent. 

The Inuit people have hunted the narwhal for thousands of years. Every part of the animal is used for various purposes from food to lamp oil. The Inuit people of the Arctic continue this practice to this day. The long-held hunting tradition has had little to no negative impact on the species.

Narwhal Skull - Skull with Tusk Attached
While the industrialized hunting of narwhals did little to threaten their population, it caused a significant drop in numbers.

Obs70/Shutterstock.com

Additionally, the industrial-scale hunting of narwhals in the 19th and 20th century did little to threaten the narwhal population. This is remarkable given the heavy impact industrial hunting during this period had on other whale species. However, industrial hunting did cause a significant drop in narwhal numbers from its peak.

Does The Narwhals Diet Impact Other Species? 

Narwhals are one of the few large predators in their northern Arctic environment. They are a necessary part of the marine ecosystem. The narwhal’s consumption of its prey keeps the population of those species within reasonable numbers. Without them, the resulting swell in prey populations would negatively impact that ecosystem. 

Additionally, the Inuit people located near the Arctic and Northern Atlantic would be negatively impacted should the narwhal face extinction. While these people are capable of survival without the tradition of hunting the narwhal, the Inuit revere the species. The Inuit people hold narwhals in high esteem that is steeped in thousands of years of tradition. The loss of the narwhal would be a hard and emotional blow to the Inuit people and for the world.

Are Narwhals Dangerous To Humans? 

Like all wild animals, scientists and researchers highly discourage attempting interactions with narwhals. The narwhal is not considered to be a danger to humans. It does not come close enough to land to be considered a threat.

There are no documented cases in which the narwhal has attacked or harmed a human. The narwhal’s most aggressive action is stunning another animal by hitting it with its tusk. 

However, human beings are a very real danger for narwhals. The increasing threats of pollution and climate change have resulted in warmer water temperatures and increased human traffic. These factors can have devastating impacts on the narwhal’s natural habitat. 

According to the ICUN Red List, there are approximately 123,000 fully mature adult narwhals left in the wild. The narwhal is listed as a species of Least Concern by the ICUN. But the World Wildlife Federation considers it to be near threatened. This and many other organizations dedicated to conservation believe that the looming threat of climate change may cause narwhal populations to rapidly decline in the future.

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