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Beluga Whales

Kingdom:

Animalia

Phylum:

Chordata

Class:

Mammalia

Order:

Cetacea

[Suborder]:

Odontoceti

Family:

Monodontidae

Genus:

Delphinapterus

Species:

leucas


What is taxonomy?

The name beluga comes from the Russian word "bielo" meaning white.   Beluga whales live, hunt, and migrate together in pods of a few, to hundreds of whales.   Beluga whales are extremely social. In the summer, they are often found near river mouths, and sometimes even venture up river (as far as 621.4 miles (1000 kilometers) in the Yukon River).  However, recent satellite tagging research has shown that beluga whales also spend time offshore, diving to depths of at least 1,148 feet (350 meters) where they are likely feeding on deepwater prey.

Interesting Facts:

  • Beluga whales (also called white whales) are known to strand on mud flats without apparent harm.  They are able to wait for the next high tide to swim away.

  • Adult beluga whales have been observed carrying odd objects such as planks, buoys, and even caribou skeletons during calving seasons.  It is believed that if a female beluga loses her newborn, she might interact with these objects as a calf surrogate.

  • Beluga whales have a flexible neck due to cervical vertebrae (backbone) that are not fused, as in other cetaceans.  This allows them to move their head up, down, and to the side.   Their bulbous forehead, called a melon, is also very flexible allowing them to make many different facial expressions.  Movement of the melon is associated with the production of sounds.

  • Beluga whales are known as the "canaries of the sea" because they produce a vast repertoire of sounds including whistles, squeals, moos, chirps, and clicks. These sounds are used for communication within their social groups and also use to locate prey through echolocation

What should I know about beluga whales?

Where do beluga whales live?

Beluga whales inhabit the Arctic and subarctic regions  of Russia, Greenland, and North America.  Some populations are strongly migratory, moving north in the spring and south in the fall as the ice forms in the Arctic.  As the ice breaks up in the spring, the whales move north again feeding near river mouths and offshore.  There are a few isolated populations that do not migrate in the spring, including those in the Cook Inlet, Alaska and the St. Lawrence estuary in Canada.

How many beluga whales are there?

Beluga whales are not considered an endangered species however some stocks are faring better than others.  NMML has done extensive work with some stocks of beluga whales including the Beaufort Sea, Eastern Chukchi Sea, Eastern Bering Sea, Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet stocks.  You can read more about these stocks in the NMFS Alaska and Atlantic stock assessment reports.

How can I identify a beluga whale?

Belugas are born dark gray. They turn white as they mature sometimes taking 3-8 years to reach their adult coloration.  Adult beluga whales can grow up to 16 feet (4.9 meters) long.  Females are generally smaller than males.  Belugas have large melons and very short snouts.  Interestingly enough, unlike other cetaceans, beluga whales also have the ability to move their head independent of their body. 

Beluga whales do not have dorsal fins.  Dorsal fins would be a major hindrance during the winter when they live in the loose pack ice of the Arctic.  A dorsal fin would cause extra heat loss when Arctic animals, such as belugas, need to to conserve heat.  They do have a tough dorsal ridge which, along with their head, can be used to break ice for breathing holes.

How well can a beluga whale see or hear?

Beluga whales have well-developed, acute senses.  They can hear a vast range of sounds and have excellent vision in and out of water.   Belugas may have some sense of taste, but they do not have the brain receptors or olfactory structures for the sense of smell.

What do beluga whales eat?

Beluga whales are diverse eaters, with more than 100 prey species identified including salmon, capelin, herring, shrimp, Arctic cod, flounder, and even crab.  They feed in both open water (pelagic) or on the bottom (benthic) and in shallow and deepwater habitats. 

How do beluga whales have their young?

Female beluga whales are old enough to reproduce at 4-7 years of age and males at 7-9 years. Beluga whales mate in the spring, the exact time varying geographically.  The following year,  after a 14-15 month gestation period, females give birth to single calves (and on a rare occasion twins) that are about 5 feet (1.5 meters) long. Calves nurse for at least 12-18 months, but may continue to nurse for another year after beginning to eat solid food.

How long do beluga whales live? How do they die?

Beluga whales are thought to live for 35-50 years.  Beluga whales are prey to killer whales and polar bears.  They can also die when entrapped by ice.

Some beluga  whale populations have been greatly reduced as a result of hunting practices. Historically, large numbers of beluga whales were hunted commercially.  Today only subsistence hunting is allowed in U.S. waters.   Beluga whales' affinity for shallow coastal waters puts them at risk as humans alter coastlines and estuaries with pollution, dams, and off-shore petroleum exploration and extraction.  Canada's St. Lawrence Estuary is an example where industrial pollution has caused high beluga whale mortality.

Where can I find more information about beluga whales?

Books and the world wide web are excellent places to learn more about marine mammals. 

Books

  • Leatherwood, Stephen. Reeves, Randall R. Foster, Larry.   The Sierra Handbook of Whales and Dolphins.  Sierra Club, San Francisco, CA.  1983.
  • Leatherwood, Stephen.  Reeves, Randall R. Perrin, William F.   Evans, William E.  Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises of the Eastern North Pacific and Adjacent Arctic waters; A Guide to their Identification.  Dover Publications, Inc., New York, NY.  1988.
  • Wynne, Kate. Folkens, Pieter. Guide to Marine Mammals of Alaska.  Alaska Sea Grant Program.  University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK.  1992. 

World Wide Web

There are many more sources to learn about cetaceans.   Check with NMML's online library or your local librarian for her or his recommendations.

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This portion of the NMML website is intended for a student audience and their educators.
Information within the education website should not be cited in scientific journals or publications.


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