Behavior habits of the Beluga whale:
Physiology, diet and predators:
The Beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas), also known as the White Whale is a beautifully pure white-coloured animal, belonging to the Monodontidae family of whales.
This rather unique family also comprises the Narwhal or 'tusked whale' (Monodon monoceros). Both species can be found around the coastal periphery of the Arctic ice fields, as well as the extreme North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (Burnie, 2001).
Also, a member of the 'toothed whales' suborder of whales known as the Odontoceti, the Beluga shares this common trait as it has between eight to eleven pairs of teeth in its upper jaw, with eight to nine in the lower.
The Beluga uses these teeth to hunt for fish, including Squid, which form the majority of its diet. It will also consume crabs and shrimp to sustain its rather ample one and a half ton frame.
The Beluga measures around 4 to 5 metres (13-18 feet) in length, and is comparable in size to a 'Humvee' utility vehicle. Due to its substantial size, the Beluga has little to fear from most predators in the ocean with the exception of the Killer Whale (Orcinus orca), which will target young calves or adults alike.
It is however most vulnerable to attacks by Polar bears (Ursus maritimus), whom will target the whale when it surfaces at breathing holes in the pack ice.
Safety in numbers:
In response to such predators, and due to the extreme nature of their environment, Beluga's are highly communicative and sociable animals. They can often be found congregating in large groups of over 100 animals. Males tend to from separate groups, whilst females and calves travel in smaller groups of around 25-50 animals (Burnie, 2001).
In their search for food, Beluga's have been radio-tracked diving to depths of 300m (985 feet). It is believed that these extremes depths are necessitated by the thick ice sheets, which in the coldest parts of the season make finding breathing holes extremely difficult.
Common to most species of whale, the Beluga mother's relationship with its calf is a long one. Initially born a paler white colour than its mother, the calf is a blue-tinged white by the age of 5 years. The first two years of the calf's life is spent in close proximity to its mother, where she and the rest of the group protect their young in a corral.
Surprisingly, young adult Beluga's will often recognise and congregate with their mothers, when returning to common spawning grounds, usually around estuaries.
One of the more vocal whale species, the Beluga has been nicknamed the 'Sea Canary', due to its propensity to emit a range of 'squeaks', 'clicks', 'whistles', 'mews' and 'hums'.
Fishermen and marine biologists have noted that these can be felt as vibrations in the hulls of boats.
The Beluga utilises its 'melon-like' bulbous head as a radar dish to focus these outgoing waves of sound. The large protrusion is used like an echolocation device, to find prey, navigate and to stay in touch with fellow whales.
The precise lexicon of these clicks and whistles are still being deciphered by scientists, into a coherent syntax, that will allow them to predict the movements of the Beluga.
This is vitally important, as the species is considered 'vulnerable' on the IUCN Red Data Book Species list. Factors like the hunting of the whale by fishermen, who prize its unique white coloured skin, are leading to a rapid decline in its numbers.
During the calving season, both adult males and females are said to exhibit 'surrogate behavior' if one of their calves dies. This takes the form of Beluga adults carrying or balancing drift wood on their backs, to mimic their young. In captivity the same behavior is observed but females carry buoys or inflatable rings instead.
Behavior in captivity and interactions with humans:
Belugas are well known for their proclivity to playing with humans, due to observations of captive animals in aquariums and oceanic study centres. Anecdotally, Belugas are renowned for their almost mischievous liking for 'spitting' water at their keepers, as well as other whales.
Indeed Beluga whales do look like they're smiling, and while this is a rather anthropomorphic theory; they do seem to enjoy these antics!
The captivating and charming behavior of Beluga Whales is clearly the result of a highly intelligent and sophisticated animal. It is my earnest wish that conservationists succeed in their attempts to halt the senseless killing of these magnificent creatures, and that their habitats are respected by man as he encroaches into them.
Anonymous. (2002). Beluga Whales: A Sea World Education Department Resource: Taken from http://www.seaworld.org/infobooks/Beluga/home.html (Accessed 15/08/08).
Burnie, D. (2001). Animals. Dorling Kindersley, London.