The beluga whale (/bɪˈluːɡə/) (Delphinapterus leucas) is an Arctic and sub-Arctic cetacean. It is one of two members of the family Monodontidae, along with the narwhal, and the only member of the genus Delphinapterus. It is also known as the white whale, as it is the only cetacean to regularly occur with this colour; the sea canary, due to its high-pitched calls; and the melonhead, though that more commonly refers to the melon-headed whale, which is an oceanic dolphin.
The beluga is adapted to life in the Arctic, with anatomical and physiological characteristics that differentiate it from other cetaceans. Amongst these are its all-white colour and the absence of a dorsal fin, which allows it to swim under ice with ease. It possesses a distinctive protuberance at the front of its head which houses an echolocation organ called the melon, which in this species is large and deformable. The beluga’s body size is between that of a dolphin and a true whale, with males growing up to 5.5 m (18 ft) long and weighing up to 1,600 kg (3,530 lb). This whale has a stocky body. Like many cetaceans, a large percentage of its weight is blubber (subcutaneous fat). Its sense of hearing is highly developed and its echolocation allows it to move about and find breathing holes under sheet ice.
Belugas are gregarious and form groups of 10 animals on average, although during the summer, they can gather in the hundreds or even thousands in estuaries and shallow coastal areas. They are slow swimmers, but can dive to 700 m (2,300 ft) below the surface. They are opportunistic feeders and their diets vary according to their locations and the season. The majority of belugas live in the Arctic Ocean and the seas and coasts around North America, Russia and Greenland; their worldwide population is thought to number around 200,000. They are migratory and the majority of groups spend the winter around the Arctic ice cap; when the sea ice melts in summer, they move to warmer river estuaries and coastal areas. Some populations are sedentary and do not migrate over great distances during the year.
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The native peoples of North America and Russia have hunted belugas for many centuries. They were also hunted by non-natives during the 19th century and part of the 20th century. Hunting of belugas is not controlled by the International Whaling Commission, and each country has developed its own regulations in different years. Currently, some Inuit in Canada and Greenland, Alaska Native groups and Russians are allowed to hunt belugas for consumption as well as for sale, as aboriginal whaling is excluded from the International Whaling Commission 1986 moratorium on hunting. The numbers have dropped substantially in Russia and Greenland, but not in Alaska and Canada.
Other threats include natural predators (polar bears and killer whales), contamination of rivers (as with Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) which bioaccumulate up the food chain), climate change and infectious diseases. The beluga was placed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List in 2008 as being “near threatened”; the subpopulation from the Cook Inlet in Alaska, however, is considered critically endangered and is under the protection of the United States’ Endangered Species Act. Of all seven extant Canadian beluga populations, those inhabiting eastern Hudson Bay, Ungava Bay, and the St. Lawrence River are listed as endangered.
Belugas are one of the most commonly kept cetaceans in captivity and are housed in aquariums, dolphinariums and wildlife parks in North America, Europe and Asia. They are considered charismatic because of their smiling appearance, communicative nature, and supple graceful movement.
- The English name “beluga” comes from the Russian word belukha, which translates into “white.” Belugas are also known as white whales. At birth, beluga calves are generally dark gray. They gradually lighten with age, and upon reaching maturity, attain the white coloration characteristic of adult belugas. This white coloration protects belugas from predators by camouflaging them among the icebergs and ice floes of northern seas.
- A highly social species, beluga whales are extremely vocal. Long ago, scientists and sailors gave beluga whales the nickname “sea canaries,” due to the birdlike sounds these whales make.
- Beluga whales lack dorsal fins, but have a low dorsal ridge. The lack of a dorsal fin means less surface area for losing heat to the environment. And without a dorsal fin, a beluga can more easily swim beneath extensive ice sheets and locate breathing holes.
- Belugas are among the few whales that have unfused cervical neck vertebrae. This feature makes their necks quite flexible and gives their heads a wide range of motion.
- Belugas can swim both forward and, unlike most other whales, backward.
- For more information about belugas, explore the Beluga Whale Info Book.
Ecology and Conservation
Beluga whales face a number of environmental threats. Industrial run-off in the St. Lawrence River has resulted in high levels of PCBs, heavy metals, and other toxins in the water. The toxins enter the food chain through single-celled organisms and become concentrated in the bodies of large carnivores. The deaths and strandings of many belugas are possibly linked to these toxins. As with other marine mammals, belugas are protected by the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.
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Belugas generally live together in small groups known as pods. They are social animals and very vocal communicators that employ a diversified language of clicks, whistles, and clangs. Belugas can also mimic a variety of other sounds.
Population Range and Migration
These whales are common in the Arctic Ocean’s coastal waters, though they are found in subarctic waters as well. Arctic belugas migrate southward in large herds when the sea freezes over. Animals trapped by Arctic ice often die, and they are prey for polar bears, killer whales, and for Arctic people. They are hunted by indigenous people of the north, and by commercial fisheries that brought some populations, such as those in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to near collapse.
Beluga feed on fish, crustaceans, and worms. The whale is related to the tusked “unicorn” whale known as the narwhal. The beluga is not related to the sturgeon of the same name, which has been heavily fished for its famous caviar.
Belugas are about 1.5 metres (4.9 feet) long at birth and grow to a length of about 4 metres (13.1 feet). Newborn calves are gray to brown, but their colour fades with age until they become completely white after attaining sexual maturity at four to five years old. Adults have broad flippers with upward-curving tips, but there is no dorsal fin. Belugas have a rounded forehead and extremely plastic facial features, enabling the whales to alter the external shape of their head at will. Female belugas experience menopause, and a significant portion of their 35–50-year life span may be spent in a post-reproductive phase.
Arctic populations of beluga whales are at home in pack ice but must migrate to warmer waters when the sea freezes over completely. They usually live in groups of 5 to pods of more than 1,000, feeding on fish, cephalopods, crustaceans, and worms.
19th and early 20th centuries
In the Arctic the beluga is hunted as food for humans and dogs. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was taken commercially for its oil, flesh, and hides, which provided industrial leather, belts, and shoelaces. The beluga population in the Gulf of St. Lawrence was nearly exterminated for its hides, and some other beluga populations are endangered by pollution.
Beluga whales are related to the narwhal, and together these two species constitute the family Monodontidae of suborder Odontoceti (the toothed whales). The name of the beluga’s genus comes from the Greek word for dolphin, delphinos, combined with apteron, alluding to its lack of dorsal fin. The specific epithet leucas is derived from the Greek leukos, meaning “white.” The common name, sometimes spelled belukha, is derived from the Russian belyi, again meaning “white.” Beluga is also a common name for the unrelated great white sturgeon of caviar fame.
Where They Live
Beluga whales live in the Arctic Ocean and its nearby seas in the Northern Hemisphere. They are common to many regions of Alaska, as well as Russia, Canada, and Greenland. Belugas are usually found in shallow coastal waters during the summer months, often in shallow water. During other seasons, they may be found in deeper waters, diving to 1,000-meter depths for periods of up to 25 minutes. They swim among ice floes in arctic and subarctic waters, where temperatures may be as low as 32°F. Belugas also seasonally inhabit estuaries and large river deltas to feed on fish runs, and are thus well-adapted to both cold ocean habitats and relatively warmer freshwater habitats.
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Lifespan & Reproduction
Similar to tree rings that can be used to age a tree, beluga teeth acquire a “growth layer group” (GLG) for each year they age. The oldest beluga on record had 80 GLGs, though this may be an underestimate of the whale’s true age due to the wear on their teeth. The oldest Cook Inlet beluga whale had 49 GLGs.
Beluga whales are believed to mate in late winter and spring. Depending on the population, this may occur during migration or in their wintering grounds. Females reach sexual maturity when they are about 6 to 14 years old, and males when they are slightly older. Pregnancy lasts approximately 15 months, and calves nurse for at least 2 years. Females can give birth every 2 to 3 years.
Pregnancy rates showed signs of decline after age 46 years old in northwest Alaska. It is notable, however, that the oldest female in the northwest Alaska sample, at age 70, was carrying a near-term fetus. The oldest female beluga whale from Cook Inlet was 47 years old and appeared to have recently given birth.
Belugas generally give birth during summer in areas where the water is relatively warm, as newborn calves lack a thick blubber layer to protect them from cold water. Calves benefit from the warmer waters found in shallow tidal flats and estuaries.
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