Taxonomy and evolution
The Beluga was first described by Peter Simon Pallas in 1776. It is a member of the Monodontidae taxonomic family alongside the Wallace family.The
The earliest known ancestor of the beluga is the now-extinct Denebola brachycephala from the late Miocene period. One single fossil has been found on the
The Red List of Threatened Species gives both Beluga and White Whale as common names, though the former is now more popular. The English name comes from the Russian белуга (beluga) or белуха (belukha) which derives from the word белый (belyy), meaning "white". It is sometimes referred to by scientists as the Belukha Whale in order to avoid confusion with the Beluga sturgeon. The whale is also colloquially known as the "Sea Canary" on account of the high-pitched squeaks, squeals and whistles.
This small whale can be up to 5 metres (16 ft) long, larger than all but the largest dolphins but smaller than most other toothed whales. Males are generally larger than the female - males can weigh 1,360 kg (3,000 lb) and females about 900kg (one short ton).
Newly-born belugas are about 1.5 m (5 ft) long and weigh 80 kilograms (176 lb). This whale is unmistakable when adult: it is all white and has a dorsal ridge rather than a fin. The head is also unlike that of any other cetacean - its melon is extremely bulbous and even malleable. The beluga is able to change the shape of its head by blowing air around its sinuses. Again unlike many dolphins and whales, the vertebrae in the neck are not fused together, allowing the animal flexibility to turn its head laterally.
The absence of the dorsal fin is reflected in the genus name of the species - apterus is the Greek for "wingless". The evolutionary preference for a dorsal ridge in favour of a fin is believed by scientists to be adaptation to under-ice conditions, or possibly as a way of preserving heat. Like in other cetaceans the thyroid gland is relatively large compared to terrestrial mammals (three times per weight as a horse) and may help to sustain higher metabolism during the summer estuarine occupations.
The body of the Beluga is rotund, particularly when well-fed, and tapers smoothly to both the head and tail. The tail fin grows and becomes increasingly ornately curved as the animal ages. The flippers are broad and short - making them almost square-shaped.
Males become sexually mature at eight years, females at five. Seasonally polyestrus females give birth to a single calf in the spring after a gestation period of fifteen months with ranges found from 14.5 in the wild to 15-17 months in captivity. Young Belugas are uniformly dark grey in colour. The grey steadily lightens as they grow up - reaching their distinctive pure white colour by the age of seven in females and nine in males. The nursing period is about two years in length. The mating process is not properly understood. Testosterone levels in males have been found to be lowest in September and then rose to be highest in march with peak sperm production thought to occur perhaps in May or June if their physiology mimics other mammals. Mating certainly does occur during the winter or early spring, when the animals are still in their winter grounds or have begun their migration. However, mating occurs at other times, leaving open the possibility of delayed implantation. Belugas can live for up to fifty years. Females in captivity have been found to conceive as old as 20 years.
White Whale (Beluga Whale, Delphinapterus leucas) at the mouth of
The beluga moves in
On June 9, 2006, the carcass of a young beluga whale was found in the Tanana River near Fairbanks in central Alaska, nearly 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) from its nearest natural ocean habitat. As beluga sometimes follow migrating fish, Tom Seaton, an
Beluga whales are highly sociable creatures. They move in pods which commonly contain animals of the same gender and age. Groups of males may number in the hundreds, but mothers with calves generally mix in slightly smaller groups. When pods aggregate in estuaries, they may number in the thousands. This can represent a significant proportion of the entire Beluga population and is the time when they are most vulnerable to hunting.
Beluga pods tend to be unstable, meaning that belugas tend to move from pod to pod. Pod membership is rarely permanent. Radio-tracking has shown belugas can start out in a pod and within a few days be hundreds of miles away from that pod. The closest social relationship between belugas is the mother-calf relationship. Nursing times of 2 years have been observed and lactational anestrus may not occur. Calves often return to the same estuary as their mother in the summer, meeting with their mother sometimes even afterbecoming fully mature.
Beluga are also known for being rather playful, as well as spitting at humans or other whales. It is not unusual for an aquarium handler to be sprayed down by one of his charges whilst tending a beluga tank. Some researchers believe that this skill may be utilized to blow away sand from crustaceans at the sea bottom.
Belugas are slow-swimming mammals which feed mainly on fish. They also eat cephalopods (squid and octopus) and crustaceans (crab and shrimp). Foraging on the seabed typically takes place at depths of up to 1,000 feet, but they can dive at least twice this depth. Generally a feeding dive will last 3-5 minutes, but belugas have been observed submerged for up to 20 minutes at a time.
Beluga are amongst the loudest animals in the sea. They exhibit a wide range of vocalizations including clicks, squeaks, whistles, squarks and a bell-like clang. One noted researcher in the field likens a noisy beluga pod to the string section of an orchestra tuning up before a concert. Researchers have recorded 50 distinct sounds; most in the range of 0.1 to 12 kHz.
Population, threats, and human interactions
The global population of beluga today stands at about 100,000. Although this number is much greater than that of other cetaceans, it is much smaller than historical populations before decades of over-hunting. There are estimated to be 40,000 individuals in the
The beluga's natural predators are polar bears, who hunt when the whales become encircled by ice during winter. In these cases many miles of ice separate groups of Belugas from the open ocean, and as a result they are unable to leave until the ice melts in spring. During this period belugas do not offer much resistance to bear attacks due to their low energy reserves.
Because beluga congregate in river estuaries, human-caused pollution isproving to be a significant danger to their health. Incidents of cancer have been reported to be rising as a result of the
Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae gram positive/variable bacilli, likely from contaminated fish in the diet, can endanger the beluga causing anorexia, dermal plaques, and lesions. This may lead to death if not diagnosed early and treated with antibiotics. Cetaceans seem quite vulnerable to pneumonia, and various species of the aerobic actinomycete Nocardia, likely more problematic when anything causes more soil or dust to become airborne, (spreading the organisms to the water or air the belugas breath), can be worrisome and can lead to death.
Belugas were amongst the first whale species to be brought into captivity. The first beluga was shown at Barnum's Museum in
Indirect human disturbance may also be a threat to the species. While some populations have come to tolerate small boats, others have been known to actively try to avoid ships. Whale-watching beluga has become a huge and booming activity in the St. Lawrence and
Because of their predictable migration pattern and high concentrations, beluga have been hunted by indigenous Arctic peoples for centuries. In many areas a pattern of hunting, believed to be sustainable, continues to this day. However, in other areas, such as the
Both the United States Navy and the Soviet Navy have used belugas in anti-mining operations in Arctic waters.