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Belugas

About AquaFacts: AquaFacts are a resource for students who are looking for information on the animals at the Aquarium or other Aquarium-related topics. Here, we’ve compiled some of the most frequently asked questions that we’ve received about belugas. The answers come from our biologists and from reputable sources that we reference at the end of this page. If you have a question about belugas that’s not addressed in this page or the references below, please feel free to email our librarian.

Belugas

Questions & Answers

Where do belugas live?

Belugas live in the Arctic and sub-Arctic waters of the world. The southern-most beluga population inhabits the St. Lawrence River estuary of Canada. It is a remnant population, separated from the other populations during the last Ice Age. Most groups of belugas move from the open ocean to coastal areas in response to the seasonal freezing and thawing of sea ice. As the ice breaks up in the spring, belugas move shoreward into newly opened waterways. Belugas often enter rivers and estuaries where the water temperature is higher and the salinity is lower than that of the ocean. These environmental conditions trigger a molt of the top layers of a beluga’s skin.

Do belugas live in groups?

In the summer months, thousands of belugas gather in shallow areas where rivers and oceans meet known as estuaries. They form nursing groups of females and calves, occasionally with juveniles in attendance. The belugas come together to moult their skin (rubbing on rocks in the shallow areas) and for females to give birth).  Male and female belugas come together during this time, but for the rest of the year, groups of adult males remain apart from the females and their calves. Scientists are only able to observe belugas in the ocean during the summer, and little is known about what happens to the social groupings in the winter and where the animals spend most of their time.

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How do belugas communicate?

Sound is an effective means of communication for belugas because it travels long distances through water. Belugas communicate with a wide range of sounds: clicks, chirps, grunts, squeals, screeches and whistles. Belugas make such an array of sounds that nineteenth century sailors and explorers of the high Arctic named them “sea canaries.” In her studies on the Vancouver Aquarium’s belugas, researcher Valeria Vergara has found that baby belugas aren’t born knowing all their sounds—they have to learn them from their social group, just like baby humans.

How do belugas stay warm in icy Arctic waters?

They are well insulated. Belugas have an insulating layer of blubber that is usually 10-15 cm thick. The thickness of the blubber layer varies with the season and the water temperature. Calves are born with only 2.5 cm of blubber, but they gain weight quickly while nursing on rich milk which ranges in fat content from 15-40% (imagine drinking a thick milkshake!)

Are belugas born white?

No, belugas are a brownish-grey colour when they are born and turn slate grey within a few weeks. As belugas age, their skin loses pigment cells which causes it to turn white. Only the rims of their pectoral flippers and tail flukes retain their original grey shade. Some Canadian researchers use the Kodak grey scale to describe the colour of belugas, but there is too much variation in the rate at which the belugas turn white for colour to be a reliable indicator of age.

belugas-baby-beluga.jpgbeluga-swim.jpg

Do belugas have predators?

Yes. Killer whales, polar bears and Greenland sharks eat belugas. Ice can be a shelter from these predators; killer whales, with their tall dorsal fins, usually don’t follow belugas beneath the ice pack. But ice can be dangerous too; belugas can get trapped at a breathing hole with no access to open water for months at a time.  Humans hunt belugas for food; subsistence hunting (hunting to survive) in the Arctic is an important part of Inuit life.

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What do belugas eat?

Belugas have a diverse diet eating a variety of capelin, young salmon, arctic cod, herring, smelt, flounder, shrimp, snails, crabs and worms. They will forage for food on the underside of sea ice, on the ocean floor and throughout the water column.  Belugas can dive deep for food, and have been recorded reaching depths of 1000 metres!

How do belugas find their food?

Belugas use echolocation; sound to find their food and emit clicks from their nasal passages similar to how some bat species find their food. These clicks travel through water and bounce off objects including ice, food or the ocean floor. Belugas listen for the echoes of these clicks to determine where their food is located. Belugas are incredibly accurate with their echolocation!

Are belugas endangered?

Yes and no. Of seven Canadian beluga populations, two are listed as endangered (inhabiting eastern Hudson Bay, and Ungava Bay), two as threatened (inhabiting Cumberland Bay and St. Lawrence River estuary), and two as “of special concern” (inhabiting the eastern high Arctic including Baffin Bay and western Hudson Bay). Only the eastern Beaufort Sea population is not at risk. The main human threats faced by belugas are climate change, habitat loss, noise pollution and contaminants and pollution in the water.  The rough estimate of the beluga population in Canada is between 72 000 and 144 000 animals.  More research needs to be done to understand this species. 

http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/science/publications/uww-msm/articles/beluga-eng.htm#footnote (beluga population size reference)



Facts & References

Key Facts

  • Sexual maturity: males at seven to nine years; females at about five years.
  • Gestation: 14-16 months.
  • Weaned at: 20-24 months.
  • Calving: on average every three years, in the late spring and early summer.
  • Length: males are four to five metres; females are three to four metres; calves are about 1.5 metres.
  • Weight: males are about 1,500 kg; females are about 1,350 kg; calves are about 53-70 kg.

Did You Know?

  • Belugas have an excellent sense of hearing; their ability to echolocate appears to be even better than that of a bottlenose dolphin!
  • Unlike most whales, some belugas enter rivers during the summer.
  • As much as 40 percent of a beluga’s body weight is blubber.
  • A beluga can nod and turn its head because, unlike most whales, its seven neck vertebrae are not fused.
  • Belugas play with food, driftwood and air bubbles.
  • Belugas can dive to at least 800 metres.

Meet The Belugas At The Vancouver Aquarium

Aurora, a female arrived at the Vancouver Aquarium from Churchill, Manitoba in the summer of 1990. She was born in approximately 1987 and is the mother of Qila.

Qila (KEE-la) is Aurora’s daughter. She was born at the Aquarium on July 23, 1995 – the first beluga born and conceived in a Canadian aquarium. Her father, Nanuq, now lives at Sea World in the United States.


Visit our Begula Cam 


References

  1. American Cetacean Society. Beluga Whale Fact Sheet
  2. Beland, Pierre. 1996. Beluga: A Farewell to Whales. New York: Lyons Press.
  3. Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2006. Underwater World: The Beluga. (http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/zone/underwater_sous-marin/beluga/beluga_e.htm).
  4. Norris, Kenneth S. 1994. “Beluga: White Whale of the North.” National Geographic. 185(6): pp. 2 - 31.
  5. Paine, Stephanie. The Nature of Arctic Whales: Belugas, Bowheads and Narwhals. 1995. Greystone Books.

Permission is granted by the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre for classroom teachers to make copies for non-commercial use. This permission does not extend to copying for promotional purposes, creating new collective works, or resale.

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