The Beluga Whale, the Little Whale That Loves to Sing

Facts About Beluga Whales

Beluga whale.
The beluga whale is easy to recognize by its white color, round head, and lack of dorsal fins. Getty Images/WaterFrame/Franco Banfi

The beloved beluga whale is known as the "canary of the sea" for its repertoire of songs. Beluga whales live mainly in colder seas, and get their name from the Russian word bielo for white. 

Why Do Beluga Whales Sing?

Beluga whales are extremely social creatures, like their close cousins, the dolphins and porpoises. A pod (group) of belugas can number in the hundreds. They migrate and hunt together, often in murky seas under the ice.

Beluga whales communicate with each other in these tough conditions by singing.

The beluga whale has a melon-shaped structure on the top of its head that enables it to produce and direct sounds. It can make an astounding array of different noises, from whistles to chirps and everything in between. Captive belugas have even learned to mimic human voices. In the wild, beluga whales use their songs to talk to other members of their pod. They're equipped with well-developed hearing, so the back and forth between whales  in a group can get quite chatty. Belugas also use their "melon" for echolocation, using sound to help them navigate in dark waters where visibility may be limited.

What Do Beluga Whales Look Like?

The beluga whale is easy to identify by its distinctive white color and humorously bulbous head. The beluga is one of the smallest whale species, reaching an average of 13 feet in length, but it can weigh over 3,000 pounds thanks to its thick layer of blubber.

Instead of dorsal fins, they have a prominent dorsal ridge. Young beluga whales are grey, but gradually lighten in color as they mature. A beluga whale in the wild has a lifespan of 30-50 years, although some scientists believe they can live as long as 70 years.

Beluga whales are unique among whales for several unusual abilities.

Because their cervical vertebrae aren't fused together as in other whale species, belugas can move their heads in all directions – up and down and side to side. This flexibility likely helps them pursue prey. They also have the unusual habit of shedding their outer layer of skin each summer. The beluga will find a shallow body of water lined with gravel, and rub its skin against the rough stones to scrape the old layer off.

What Do Beluga Whales Eat?

Beluga whales are opportunistic carnivores. They're known to feed on shellfish, mollusks, fish, and other marine life, from squid to snails.

The Beluga Whale Life Cycle

Beluga whales mate in the spring, and the mother carries her developing calf for 14-15 months. The whale moves to warmer waters before giving birth, because her newborn calf doesn't have enough blubber to survive in the cold. Whales are mammals, and so the beluga calf relies on its mother to nurse for the first few years of its life. A female beluga whale reaches reproductive age between 4 and 7 years old, and can give birth to a calf about every two or three years. Males take longer to reach sexual maturity, at about 7 to 9 years of age.

How Are Beluga Whales Classified?

The beluga is most closely related to the narwhal, the "unicorn" whale with a horn on its head.

They are the only two members of the family of white whales.

Kingdom - Animalia (animals)
Phylum - Chordata (organisms with a dorsal nerve cord)
Class – Mammalia (mammals)
Order – Cetacea (whales, dolphins, and porpoises)
Suborder – Odontoceti (toothed whales)
Family - Monodontidae (white whales)
Genus – Delphinapterus
Species – Delphinapterus leucas

Where Do Beluga Whales Live?

Beluga whales inhabit the cold waters of the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Arctic Sea. They live mainly in the high latitudes around Canada, Greenland, Russia, and Alaska in the U.S. Belugas are sometimes spotted around northern Europe.

Beluga whales prefer shallow waters along the coast, and will swim into river basins and estuaries. They don't seem bothered by changes of salinity, which enables them to move from the salty ocean water to freshwater rivers without issue.

Are Beluga Whales Endangered?

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) designates the beluga whale as a "near threatened" species. However, this global designation does not take into account some specific beluga populations that may be at greater risk of decline. Beluga whales were previously designated as "vulnerable," and they are still hunted for food and caught for captive display in some parts of their range.

 

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Hadley, Debbie. "The Beluga Whale, the Little Whale That Loves to Sing." ThoughtCo, Jun. 19, 2017, thoughtco.com/beluga-whale-facts-4142688. Hadley, Debbie. (2017, June 19). The Beluga Whale, the Little Whale That Loves to Sing. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/beluga-whale-facts-4142688 Hadley, Debbie. "The Beluga Whale, the Little Whale That Loves to Sing." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/beluga-whale-facts-4142688 (accessed December 13, 2017).