Monodon monoceros 

Scope: Global
Language: English

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Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family
Animalia Chordata Mammalia Cetartiodactyla Monodontidae

Scientific Name: Monodon monoceros
Species Authority: Linnaeus, 1758
Regional Assessments:
Common Name(s):
English Narwhal, Unicorn Whale
French Narval
Spanish Narval

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Near Threatened ver 3.1
Year Published: 2012
Date Assessed: 2008-07-01
Assessor(s): Jefferson, T.A., Karkzmarski, L., Laidre, K., O’Corry-Crowe, G., Reeves, R., Rojas-Bracho, L., Secchi, E., Slooten, E., Smith, B.D., Wang, J.Y. & Zhou, K.
Reviewer(s): Brownell Jr., R.L. & Cooke, J.
The narwhal was assessed previously (1996) as Data Deficient. The aggregate circumpolar population of narwhals is probably greater than 80,000 (all ages). At the global level the species does not qualify for a threatened status under any of the criteria, although there is substantial uncertainty about numbers and trends in large parts of the range and clear evidence of decline for specific subpopulations (NAMMCO/JCNB 2005). The intense hunting (including associated loss due to wounding and sinking) in Greenland and Canada gives cause for concern, particularly given the lack of reliable data on hidden mortality and serious injury. Given that uncertainty, and the fact that cessation of national and international, taxon-specific conservation programs that currently monitor and manage hunting could result in the narwhal’s qualifying for threatened status (under criterion A) within five years, the species should be listed as Near Threatened. The narwhal is unquestionably a conservation-dependent species.

Across the global range of the species, subpopulations are subject to differing levels of threat and warrant individual assessment. Therefore, a caveat for the global listing as Near Threatened is that it assumes national and international management authorities will continue to monitor and manage harvest levels. Hunting with modern equipment in specific parts of Greenland and Canada represents the most long-standing and consistent threat to narwhals throughout their range. Several small and/or depleted subpopulations (e.g. West Greenland and Hudson Bay) warrant individual assessment as an immediate priority.
Previously published Red List assessments:

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:Narwhals primarily inhabit the Atlantic sector of the Arctic. The principal distribution is from the central Canadian Arctic (Peel Sound – Prince Regent Inlet and northern Hudson Bay) eastward to Greenland and into the eastern Russian Arctic (around 180°E). They are rarely observed in the far eastern Russian Arctic, Alaska, or the western Canadian Arctic. In summer, Narwhals spend approximately two months in high Arctic ice-free shallow bays and fjords; they overwinter in offshore, deep, ice-covered habitats along the continental slope (Heide-Jørgensen and Dietz 1995). The whales migrate annually between these disjunct seasonal areas of concentration, with the migratory periods lasting approximately two months (Koski and Davis 1994, Innes et al. 2002, Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2002, Dietz et al. 2001, Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2003).

The map shows where the species may occur based on oceanography. The species has not been recorded for all the states within the hypothetical range as shown on the map. States for which confirmed records of the species exist are included in the list of native range states.
Countries occurrence:
Canada; Greenland; Russian Federation; Svalbard and Jan Mayen
Germany; Iceland; Netherlands; Norway; United Kingdom; United States
FAO Marine Fishing Areas:
Arctic Sea; Atlantic – northwest; Atlantic – northeast
Additional data:
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]

Population:The global population is probably in excess of 80,000 animals. The narwhals that summer in the Canadian High Arctic constitute the largest fraction, probably in excess of 70,000 animals (Innes et al. 2002; NAMMCO/JCNB 2005). In addition, some thousands of narwhals probably summer in the bays and fjords along the East Baffin Island coastline (NAMMCO/JCNB 2005). Another summering aggregation, centred in northern Hudson Bay, numbers about 3,500 animals (COSEWIC 2004). Two summering aggregations in West Greenland (Inglefield Bredning and Melville Bay) total over 2,000 animals (Heide-Jørgensen 2004, NAMMCO/JCNB 2005) and in East Greenland a rough estimate of the total number of animals in the summering aggregations is >1,000 (Gjertz 1991, NAMMCO/JCNB 2005). Surveys in Central West Greenland in late winter estimated 2,800 animals in 1998 and 1999 (Heide-Jørgensen and Acquarone 2002), however, these surveys covered unknown proportions of whales from different summering aggregations in West Greenland (likely Inglefield Bredning) and possibly Canada. Some areas in Canada with summering aggregations remain unsurveyed, although these likely contain small numbers.

The estimated generation length for the narwhal according to Taylor et al. (2007) is 24 years, which means that the 3-generation window is 1936-2008.
Current Population Trend:Unknown
Additional data:
Population severely fragmented:No

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology:In all areas of their occurrence, Narwhals prefer deep or offshore waters (Hay and Mansfield 1989). Narwhals from Canada and West Greenland have high site fidelity to the winter pack ice of Davis Strait and Baffin Bay in regions along the continental slope with high gradients in bottom temperatures, predictable open water (< 5%) and relatively high densities of Greenland Halibut (Laidre et al. 2004a). The wintering grounds may be the most important habitat for narwhals. Intense benthic feeding behavior has been documented between November and March in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait (Laidre et al. 2003, Laidre and Heide-Jørgensen 2005a), in contrast to low feeding activity during the summer period. This suggests a major portion of the annual energy intake is obtained in winter (Laidre et al. 2004a, Laidre and Heide-Jørgensen 2005a). This may also be true for the Greenland Sea, but has yet to be documented.

Fish, squid, and shrimp make up the Narwhal’s diet (Hay and Mansfield 1989; Heide-Jorgensen 2002), especially Arctic fish species, such as Greenland halibut, Arctic Cod, and Polar Cod (the latter of which are often associated with undersides of ice) (Laidre and Heide-Jørgensen 2005a). Narwhals feed mostly in deep water and possibly at or near the bottom. Dives of up to nearly 1,500 m and 25 minutes are documented (Laidre et al. 2003), and there are some seasonal differences in the depth and intensity of diving (Laidre et al. 2002, Laidre et al. 2003). Predators include Killer Whales, Polar Bears, and possibly occasionally Greenland Sharks and Walruses (Hay and Mansfield 1989).

Use and Trade [top]

Use and Trade: This species is hunted in Canada and Greenland for human and animal food, and for tusk ivory.

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s): Narwhal populations are potentially threatened by hunting, climate change, and industrial activities. Narwhals were never the targets of large-scale commercial hunting except for a brief period of perhaps several decades of the early 20th century in the eastern Canadian Arctic (Mitchell and Reeves 1981). They were hunted opportunistically by commercial whalers, explorers and adventurers in many areas. For many centuries, narwhals have been hunted by the Inuit for human food, dog food and tusk ivory (Born et al. 1994). The mattak (skin and adhering blubber) is highly prized as food and provides a strong incentive for the hunt (Reeves 1993), but in recent years the cash value of ivory and the need for cash to buy snowmobiles have both greatly increased. Potential future threats include habitat degradation from oil exploration and development (e.g., in West Greenland) and increased shipping in the high Arctic (NW and NE passages), all of which is bound to increase with the dramatic, ongoing reduction in sea ice.

In West Greenland, catches have declined since 1993 with no significant sex bias. Heide-Jorgensen (2002) estimated the annual catch rate at 550 between 1993 and 1995. In 2004, the estimated catch in West Greenland was 294 (NAMMCO/JCNB 2005), including whales that were struck and lost. In contrast to West Greenland, there has been an 8% increase in catches in East Greenland since 1993 (NAMMCO/JCNB 2005).

The narwhal is actively hunted only in Canada and Greenland. In the eastern Canadian Arctic, the average reported landed catch per year from selected communities was 373 between 1996 and 2004 (NAMMCO/JCNB 2005). In Canada the majority of the communities take a greater proportion of males than females throughout the seasons. Annual catch statistics in Canada substantially underestimate the total numbers of Narwhals killed due primarily to the incomplete reporting of whales that are struck and killed but lost (IWC 2000; NAMMCO/JCNB 2005; Nicklen 2007).

Narwhals supplied various staples in the traditional subsistence economy. Today the main products are mattak and ivory (Reeves 1993, Reeves and Heide-Jørgensen 1994, Heide-Jørgensen 1994, Nicklen 2007). Narwhal tusks from Canada and Greenland are sold in specialty souvenir markets domestically and also have been exported. However, in Greenland, the export of tusks is currently banned. In Canada, the quota system that had been in place since the 1970s was replaced by a community-based management system implemented in the late 1990s and early 2000s (COSEWIC 2004). The hunt is managed by local hunter and trapper organizations with harvest limits established in some communities. Compliance has been questionable (COSEWIC 2004). Under this system, removals from some summering aggregations are probably sustainable, however, there is concern that removals from other summering aggregations may not be (NAMMCO/JCNB 2005). In Greenland, a quota system was introduced in 2004 by the Greenland Ministry of Fisheries and Wildlife. The quota was set at 300 Narwhals (of which 294 were taken), divided among municipalities of West Greenland. Compliance reportedly has been good (NAMMCO/JCNB 2005) although there is concern that catch limits may be set too high (IWC 2007, p. 52).

The effects of climate change on Narwhals are uncertain. Narwhals are well adapted to a life in the pack ice as indicated by the fact that there is very little open water in their winter habitat (Laidre and Heide-Jørgensen 2005b). They spend much of their time in heavy ice and are vulnerable to ice entrapments where hundreds can become trapped in a small opening in the sea ice (savssat) and die. This occurs when sudden changes in weather conditions (such as shifts in wind or quick drops in temperature) freeze shut leads and cracks they were using. When entrapped whales are discovered by hunters, they normally are killed. A recent assessment of the sensitivity of all Arctic marine mammals to climate change ranked the narwhal as one of the three most sensitive species, primarily due to its narrow geographic distribution, specialized feeding and habitat choice, and high site fidelity (Laidre et al. in press).

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions: The species is listed in Appendix II of CITES and CMS Appendix II.

The European Union (EU), with stronger CITES rules than other countries, has established an import ban on tusks (active since December 2004). Although Denmark belongs to the EU, it is unclear whether the ban on trade in narwhal ivory between Greenland and Denmark is being enforced.

Classifications [top]

9. Marine Neritic -> 9.1. Marine Neritic - Pelagic
10. Marine Oceanic -> 10.1. Marine Oceanic - Epipelagic (0-200m)
suitability:Suitable  major importance:Yes
10. Marine Oceanic -> 10.2. Marine Oceanic - Mesopelagic (200-1000m)
suitability:Suitable  major importance:Yes
10. Marine Oceanic -> 10.3. Marine Oceanic - Bathypelagic (1000-4000m)
suitability:Suitable  major importance:Yes
3. Species management -> 3.1. Species management -> 3.1.1. Harvest management
3. Species management -> 3.1. Species management -> 3.1.2. Trade management

In-Place Research, Monitoring and Planning
In-Place Land/Water Protection and Management
In-Place Species Management
  Harvest management plan:Yes
In-Place Education
  Included in international legislation:Yes
  Subject to any international management/trade controls:Yes
1. Residential & commercial development -> 1.2. Commercial & industrial areas
♦ timing:Future    
→ Stresses
  • 1. Ecosystem stresses -> 1.1. Ecosystem conversion
  • 1. Ecosystem stresses -> 1.2. Ecosystem degradation

11. Climate change & severe weather -> 11.1. Habitat shifting & alteration
♦ timing:Future    
→ Stresses
  • 1. Ecosystem stresses -> 1.1. Ecosystem conversion
  • 1. Ecosystem stresses -> 1.2. Ecosystem degradation
  • 2. Species Stresses -> 2.2. Species disturbance

4. Transportation & service corridors -> 4.3. Shipping lanes
♦ timing:Ongoing    
→ Stresses
  • 2. Species Stresses -> 2.1. Species mortality
  • 2. Species Stresses -> 2.2. Species disturbance

5. Biological resource use -> 5.4. Fishing & harvesting aquatic resources -> 5.4.1. Intentional use: (subsistence/small scale) [harvest]
♦ timing:Ongoing    
→ Stresses
  • 2. Species Stresses -> 2.1. Species mortality

1. Research -> 1.2. Population size, distribution & trends
1. Research -> 1.5. Threats
1. Research -> 1.6. Actions
3. Monitoring -> 3.1. Population trends

♦  Food - human
 Local : ✓   National : ✓ 

♦  Food - animal
 Local : ✓   National : ✓ 

♦  Handicrafts, jewellery, etc.
 National : ✓  International : ✓ 

Bibliography [top]

Born, E. W., Heide-Jørgensen, M. P., Larsen, F. and Martin, A. R. 1994. Abundance and stock composition of narwhals (Monodon monoceros) in Inglefield Bredning (NW Greenland). Meddelelser om Gronland Bioscience 39: 51-68.

Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. 2004. Assessment and update status report on the narwhal Monodon monoceros in Canada. Ottawa, Canada Available at:

Dietz, R., Heide-Jørgensen, M. P., Richard, P. R. and Acquarone, M. 2001. Summer and fall movements of narwhals (Monodon monoceros) from northeastern Baffin Island towards northern Davis Strait. Arctic 54: 244-261.

Gjertz, I. 1991. The narwhal, Monodon monoceros, in the Norwegian high arctic. Marine Mammal Science 7: 402-408.

Hay, K. A. and Mansfield, A. W. 1989. Narwhal Monodon monoceros Linneaus, 1758. In: S. H. Ridgway and R. Harrison (eds), Handbook of marine mammals, pp. 145-176. Academic Press, London, UK.

Heide-Jørgensen, M. P. 1994. Distribution, exploitation and population status of white whales (Delphinapterus leucas) and narwhals (Monodon monceros) in West Greenland. Meddelelser om Gronland Bioscience 39: 135-150.

Heide-Jørgensen, M. P. 2002. Narwhal Monodon monoceros. In: W. F. Perrin, B. Wursig and J. G. M. Thewissen (eds), Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, pp. 783-787. Academic Press, San Diego, USA.

Heide-Jørgensen, M. P. 2004. Aerial digital photographic surveys of narwhals, Monodon monoceros, in northwest Greenland. Marine Mammal Science 20(2): 246-261.

Heide-Jørgensen, M. P. and Aquarone, M. 2002. Size and trends of bowhead whales, beluga and narwhal stocks wintering off West Greenland. NAMMCO Scientific Publications 4: 191-210.

Heide-Jørgensen, M. P. and Dietz, R. 1995. Some characteristics of narwhal, Monodon monoceros, diving behaviour in Baffin Bay. Canadian Journal of Zoology 73: 2106-2119.

Heide-Jørgensen, M. P., Dietz, R., Laidre, K. L. and Richard, P. 2002. Autumn movements, home ranges, and winter density of narwhals (Monodon monoceros) tagged in Tremblay Sound, Baffin Island. Polar Biology 25: 331-341.

Heide-Jørgensen, M. P., Richard, P., Dietz, R., Laidre, K. L., Orr, J. and Schmidt, H. C. 2003. An estimate of the fraction of belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) in the Canadian High Arctic that winter in West Greenland. Polar Biology 26: 318-326.

Innes, S., Heide-Jørgensen, M. P., Laake, J. L., Laidre, K. L., Cleator, H. J., Richard, P. and Stewart, R. E. A. 2002. Surveys of belugas and narwhals in the Canadian High Arctic in 1996. NAMMCO Scientific Publications 4: 169-190.

International Whaling Commission. 2002. Report of the Standing Sub-Committee on Small Cetaceans. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 4: 325-338.

International Whaling Commission. 2007. Report of the Scientific Committee. Journal of Cetcaean Research and Management 9: 1–73.

IUCN. 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (ver. 2012.2). Available at: (Accessed: 17 October 2012).

Koski, W. R. and Davis, R. A. 1994. Distribution and numbers of narwhals (Monodon monoceros) in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait. Meddelelser om Gronland Bioscience 39: 15-40.

Laidre, K. L. and Heide-Jørgensen, M. P. 2005. Arctic sea ice trends and narwhal vulnerability. Biological Conservation 121: 509-517.

Laidre, K. L. and Heide-Jørgensen, M. P. 2005. Winter feeding intensity of narwhals (Monodon monoceros). Marine Mammal Science 21(1): 45-57.

Laidre, K. L., Heide-Jørgensen, M. P. and Dietz, R. 2002. Diving behaviour of narwhals (Monodon monoceros) at two coastal localities in the Canadian High Arctic. Canadian Journal of Zoology 80: 624-635.

Laidre, K. L., Heide-Jørgensen, M. P., Dietz, R., Hobbs, R. C. and Jorgensen, O. A. 2003. Deep diving by narwhals Monodon monoceros: Differences in foraging behavior between wintering areas? Marine Ecology Progress Series 261: 269-281.

Laidre, K. L., Heide-Jørgensen, M. P., Jorgensen, O. A. and Treble, M. A. 2004. Deep-ocean predation by a high Arctic cetacean. ICES Journal of Marine Science 61: 430-440.

Laidre, K.L., Stirling, I., Lowry, L.F., Wiig, Ø., Heide-Jørgensen, M.P. and Ferguson, S.H. 2008. Quantifying the sensitivity of Arctic marine mammals to climate-induced habitat change. Ecological Applications 18: S97-S125.

Mitchell, E. and Reeves, R. R. 1981. Catch history and cumulative catch estimates of inital population size of cetaceans in the eastern Canadian Arctic. Reports of the International Whaling Commission 31: 645-682.

Nicklen, P. 2007. Arctic ivory: hunting the narwhal. National Geographic 212(2): 110-129.

North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission. 2005. Report of the Joint Meeting of the NAMMCO Scientific Committee Working Ground on the population status of narwhal and beluga in the North Atlantic and the Canada/Greenland Joint Commission on Consercation and Management of Narwhal and Beluga Scientific Working Group. North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission, Nuuk, Greenland.

Reeves, R. R. 1993. Domestic and international trade in narwhal products. Traffic Bulletin 14: 13-20.

Reeves, R. R. and Heide-Jørgensen, M. P. 1994. Commercial aspects of the exploitation of narwhals (Monodon monoceros) in Greenland, with emphasis on tusk exports. Meddelelser om Gronland Bioscience 39: 119-134.

Citation: Jefferson, T.A., Karkzmarski, L., Laidre, K., O’Corry-Crowe, G., Reeves, R., Rojas-Bracho, L., Secchi, E., Slooten, E., Smith, B.D., Wang, J.Y. & Zhou, K. 2012. Monodon monoceros. In: The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T13704A17691711. . Downloaded on 21 January 2017.
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