Blue Zoo: Beluga
Featuring one amazing marine animal per week.
The beluga whale is a very vocal and social animal that lives in the Arctic Ocean. They live in pods of up to 15 individuals and mothers have a very strong bond with their calves, which are darker in color. In summer thousands of them can come together in shallow coastal estuaries where they go to molt. They rub themselves on the sandy bottom to get rid of the dead skin that accumulates over the winter, turning from a dull yellow back to bright white!
Photo by PacificEagle, Flickr, Creative Commons License.
Its scientific name is Delphinapterus leucas. The genus name, Delphinapterus, means “whale without a wing” because the beluga has no dorsal fin. It is thought that this is because the dorsal fin would cause too much heat loss in the cold Arctic waters, but the beluga does have a dorsal ridge, a line of thickened skin that runs along its back. The species name leucas simply means “white.”
Photo by Ansgar Walk, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.
Belugas are naturally preyed upon by orcas and by polar bears. People native to the Arctic have subsistence hunted belugas for generations, and hunting them did not become unsustainable until commercial whaling began. Issues such as pollution and development are also now threatening beluga populations. The IUCN lists beluga as “near threatened,” two steps below endangered, but some beluga populations are at greater risk, like a small group in the St. Lawrence River that has shown extremely high concentrations of toxic PCBs in their body tissues, and high rates of infections and cancer.
Photo by Claude Robillard, Flickr, Creative Commons License.
Belugas can dive down more than 800meters and can hold their breath for 25 minutes. They range in size from 13 to 20 feet – that’s small for a whale! They eat fish and squid and can swim to the seafloor to slurp crustaceans and other critters from the sediment. Belugas have flexible lips and necks so they can turn their heads and change their facial expressions, which is unusual for whales and dolphins.
Visit our Sea Creature Fun Fact page for more beluga information and activities.