‘Corpse whale’ gift from whaling man


The narwhal (Monodon monoceros) is a medium-sized toothed whale to be found in the Arctic, primarily off Canada and Greenland.

It feeds mainly on flatfish, shrimp and squid up to 1500 metres below the pack ice, and can live up to 50 years.



The male can grow up to16 feet (4.9 m) long (not including the tusk), and fully grown will weigh about 1.8 tons (1.6 tonnes).

The female is slightly smaller, young are born live after about 14 months gestation, and stay with the mother for four months.

They live in ‘pods’ of up to forty animals, and hunt in packs of five to ten animals and can dive for up to 25 minutes.

The name meant ‘corpse whale’ in medieval Norwegian, which refers to the bluish-grey colour and white blotches on the skin, while young narwhals are brown.

Narwhals have a compact cylindrical body with a thick layer of blubber, no dorsal fin, a round head with a blunt snout and small mouth.

The Inuit people of northern Canada and Greenland are permitted a regulated subsistence hunt; meat, skin, blubber and organs are consumed, raw skin and blubber are considered a delicacy, and the bones are used for tools and art.

The skin is an important source of vitamin C which is otherwise difficult to obtain.

The male’s upper left canine has developed into long, straight, hollow tusk, which is not used for hunting.

The tusk’s function is uncertain, it may be used as a formidable jousting weapon in courtship and dominance rivalry, and/or for amplifying sonar pulses which they emit, as these are very social and communicative animals..

The scientific name is derived from Greek: “one-tooth one-horn” or “one-toothed unicorn”.

Some medieval Europeans believed narwhal tusks to be the horns from the legendary unicorn, with possible magical properties to cure poison and melancholia,

The tusks were staples of the cabinet of curiosities, the collections made by men in the 18th and 10th Centuries, and a large number seem to have found their way into the homes of Whitby men.

This complete skeleton of a juvenile, came to the Museum in 1825, the gift of Thomas Brodrick junior, of a local whaling family.

Populations appear stable, but the narwhal is particularly vulnerable to climate change and hunting by non-Inuit, such as oil exploitation, and seismic surveys, which may be changing migration