The beluga whale, scientifically known as Delphinapterus leucas, is a remarkable marine mammal known for its striking appearance and incredible adaptability. Characterized by its distinct white coloration in adulthood, bulbous forehead, and absence of a dorsal fin, the beluga is uniquely equipped for life in the cold and icy waters of the Arctic and subarctic regions. These beautiful creatures not only captivate onlookers with their grace and social behavior but also play a vital role in their ecosystems. From their complex communication methods to their impressive diving capabilities, beluga whales continue to intrigue scientists and wildlife enthusiasts alike, symbolizing the mystery and splendor of the oceans they inhabit.
From its playful demeanor to its astonishing physiological adaptations, there is much to learn and appreciate about this incredible mammal. Here are 10 amazing beluga whale facts.
1. Beluga Whales are incredibly social and the most vocal of all whales
Beluga Whales are social animals that live in pods of varying sizes, ranging from a few individuals to several hundred. They often communicate with each other through a series of complex vocalizations, including clicks, whistles, and chirps.
These sounds are used for navigation, locating prey, and social interactions within the pod. Known as the “canaries of the sea,” belugas can even mimic a variety of other sounds they hear, including human voices. Their strong social bonds are also evident in the way they care for their young and interact with one another through tactile behaviors such as rubbing and touching. This highly developed social structure and communication ability make the beluga one of the most interactive and expressive members of the whale family.
2. They can swim backward
Beluga whales can swim backward due to their highly flexible bodies and specialized neck structure. Unlike many other whales, the vertebrae in a beluga’s neck are not fused, allowing for a greater range of motion. This enhanced flexibility, coupled with their strong, muscular tail flukes, allows them to control their movements with precision.
Their ability to swim backward is further facilitated by their rounded, paddle-like flippers, which they can use to steer and maneuver with exceptional agility. This backward swimming skill enables them to navigate through the icy, narrow channels of their Arctic habitat with ease, where sharp turns and reverse movements may be necessary.
They swim very slowly, though. Belugas are not as swift in the water as other toothed whales like the killer whale or the common bottlenose dolphin. This is largely due to their less hydrodynamic body shape and limited tail-fin movement, which is responsible for generating the most thrust. Their usual swimming speeds hover between 3 and 9 kilometers per hour (1.9 and 5.6 miles per hour).
However, belugas are capable of reaching a speed of 22 kilometers per hour (around 13.7 miles per hour), maintaining this pace for up to 15 minutes. Their relatively slower movement reflects adaptations to their specific environment and needs, rather than a pursuit of speed common to some other marine mammals.
3. They are mid-sized toothed whales
Adult male beluga whales typically measure between 3.5 to 5.5 meters (11 to 18 feet) in length, while females are slightly smaller, ranging from 3 to 4.1 meters (9.8 to 13.5 feet).
In terms of weight, males can fall between 1,100 and 1,600 kilograms (2,430 and 3,530 pounds), and may even reach up to 1,900 kilograms (4,190 pounds) in some instances. Females tend to be lighter, with weights ranging from 700 to 1,200 kilograms (1,540 to 2,650 pounds). Among toothed whales, belugas are considered a mid-sized species, reflecting a significant variation in size between genders.
4. Beluga Whales are excellent divers
Beluga whales are adept divers, capable of reaching depths of up to 2,600 feet (800 meters). Their dives usually last around 15-20 minutes, although they are capable of staying submerged longer if necessary. This ability allows them to reach deeper prey and escape from predators. Their flexible ribcages enable them to withstand the pressure changes associated with deep diving.
5. They can help/save humans
In 2009, during a free diving competition in China, something extraordinary happened that showcased the intelligence and empathy of beluga whales. A diver named Yang Yun was participating in the contest held in a large tank filled with frigid Arctic waters, shared by a captive beluga whale named Mila.
As Yang Yun descended, her legs cramped due to the cold temperatures, leaving her unable to move and trapped beneath the surface. Sensing distress, Mila, the beluga whale, approached the struggling diver. With an instinctive understanding of the situation, Mila used her mouth to gently grab Yang Yun’s leg. She then pushed the immobilized diver to the surface, effectively rescuing her.
This incredible act of interspecies empathy not only saved Yang Yun’s life but also offered a remarkable insight into the complex intelligence and compassionate nature of beluga whales. It became an inspirational story that resonated worldwide, showcasing the beluga’s ability to understand and respond to human emotions and physical states. The incident further sparked discussions about the relationship between humans and marine mammals and raised questions about keeping such intelligent creatures in captivity.
6. Beluga whales can change the shape of their bulbous foreheads
The beluga whale’s distinct bulbous forehead, known as the “melon,” serves a critical function beyond its unique appearance. This melon is composed of lipids and is connected to the whale’s nasal passages, allowing the beluga to change its shape by blowing air around its sinuses.
The ability to manipulate the melon’s shape plays a vital role in echolocation, the process by which belugas navigate and find food. By altering the shape of the melon, belugas can focus and direct the sound waves they produce, enabling them to “see” with sound by interpreting the echoes that bounce back from objects in their surroundings. This skill is particularly valuable in the murky, icy waters of the Arctic and subarctic regions where they live, where visibility is often limited.
This adaptation also allows belugas to communicate with each other through a diverse array of vocalizations. By altering the melon’s shape, they can produce a wide range of sounds, from clicks and whistles to more complex mimicked noises.
7. Females give birth to one calf every three years
Females give birth to a single calf roughly every three years, with gestation periods ranging from 12 to 15.8 months. Mating mainly occurs from February to May, and birthing is influenced by location and water temperature. Calves nurse for the first year, receiving milk rich in nutrients, and continue to nurse for up to 20 months.
Belugas also demonstrate alloparenting, where females other than the mother assist in caregiving.
8. Beluga whales are not born white
The name “beluga” for these distinctive whales is derived from the Russian word “bielo,” meaning white, a fitting description for the adult members of the species. Interestingly, despite this association with whiteness, beluga whales are not born white. Instead, they enter the world with a dark gray coloring, a sharp contrast to their eventual appearance.
As they grow and mature, beluga whales undergo a gradual transformation in color. Over a period of up to eight years, their skin lightens, transitioning through various shades until they achieve their iconic white hue. This transformation is more than mere aesthetics; it serves a functional purpose as well.
The white coloration helps adult beluga whales blend into their Arctic and subarctic environments, camouflaging them against ice and snow. This natural camouflage provides them with protection from predators and assists in their hunting tactics. Conversely, the darker coloration of the young may aid in absorbing more sunlight, helping them to retain heat in the frigid waters they inhabit.
9. They can turn their head up, down, and side-to-side
Unlike many other cetaceans (a group of aquatic mammals that include whales, dolphins, and porpoises), the beluga whale possesses an unusual and intriguing anatomical feature: the vertebrae in its neck are not fused together. This gives the beluga flexibility that is rare among its marine mammal relatives, allowing it to turn its head up, down, and side-to-side.
This ability to move its head in various directions is more than just a curious trait; it provides significant advantages to the beluga in its natural habitat. The increased neck mobility enables the beluga to have a wider range of vision, allowing it to easily spot prey, predators, or other members of its pod. This can be particularly valuable in the often murky and icy waters of the Arctic and subarctic regions where the beluga resides.
Furthermore, the flexible neck aids in the beluga’s navigation and hunting strategies. It can more precisely target prey, maneuver through challenging underwater landscapes, and communicate through intricate body language with other beluga whales. This can enhance social interactions within the pod, as head movements can be used to signal intentions or emotions to other members.
The absence of fused neck vertebrae also contributes to the beluga’s renowned vocal abilities. Belugas are sometimes called “canaries of the sea” due to their extensive range of vocalizations. The flexibility in the neck may support the complex control of sounds, enhancing their ability to produce diverse clicks, whistles, and other noises.
10. Beluga whales don’t have dorsal fins
Belugas, like other arctic whales, exhibit distinct physical adaptations that enable them to thrive in some of the most frigid and inhospitable environments on Earth. One of the most noticeable differences between belugas and many other cetaceans is the absence of a dorsal fin. In most marine mammals, a dorsal fin aids in stability and steering, but in the freezing waters of the Arctic, such a structure would cause extra heat loss, posing a significant risk to the animal’s well-being.
Instead of a dorsal fin, belugas have a tough dorsal ridge that runs along their back. This robust feature provides some of the stabilization benefits of a dorsal fin but without the associated heat loss. Furthermore, this dorsal ridge is specially adapted to allow belugas to break through thin ice, giving them access to breathing holes or allowing them to create new ones when necessary.
Another crucial adaptation is the thick layer of blubber that surrounds the beluga’s body. This fatty tissue serves as a highly effective insulator, trapping body heat and shielding the animal from the icy arctic waters. The blubber not only helps maintain body temperature but also serves as an energy reserve, storing fat that can be metabolized when food is scarce.
The combination of the lack of a dorsal fin, the presence of a dorsal ridge, and the substantial blubber layer reflects the beluga’s intricate adaptation to its extreme habitat. These features contribute to the beluga’s ability to navigate, hunt, and survive in the complex and ever-changing arctic environment.
- Beluga Whale on Wikipedia
- “Beluga Whale Saves Drowning Diver” on the National Geographic Adventure Blog website
- “Ten Interesting Facts about Beluga Whales” on the World Wide Fund for Nature website
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