The ‘Unicorn’ Tooth of a Narwhal

graphic of the Unicorn ToothA narwhal is a medium sized whale that lives in the icy arctic environment and has a large tusk coming out of its canine tooth. This tusk is usually between 6 to 9 feet long. That is why it is sometimes called a unicorn tooth.

This tusk is the most unusual trait of the narwhal.  It projects from the left side of the upper jaw going through the lip. The tusk does not stop growing throughout their lifetime. It is hollow and can weigh around 22 pounds. Every once in awhile you can find a male narwhal that has two tusks, allow it is extremely rare. It is mostly males narwhals that grown this unique tooth, but you can find about 15 percent of females do grow a tusk. The female narwhal tusk is smaller than the males’ tusk, and not as spiraled. In the world of interesting teeth, the narwhal tusk is certainly high on the list.


That is why Dr. Martin Nweeia, a dental scientist, has been studying the narwhal for over 10 years. He says that, “the unusual anatomy of this tusk give us a new perspective of teeth.” We usually think of teeth as a way to chew our food, or for biting. And we forget that there is tissue in the teeth and that they have the ability to aid our senses.

Dr. Nweeia has found that the narwhal tooth has the ability to detect the different amounts of salt water, compared to fresh water.  His team found nerves, tissues and genes in the narwhal tooth that help connect the sensory information to the brain. Through many different tests, Dr. Nweeia found that the narwhal tooth is very important to the animal’s ability to sense his environment, just like humans use their five senses.

Dental scientists are discovering new things about the world of animal teeth all the time, as well as how to use this information to help us better understand our own teeth.