1. Scientific & Common Names
4. Present Status
Scientific & Common Names
Kingdom - Animalia
Phylum - Chordata
Class - Mammalia
Order - Artiodactyla
Infraorder - Cetacea
Family - Monodontidae
Genus - Delphinapterus
Species - D. leucas
Common Names – Beluga Whale, White Whale, Melonhead, Sea Canary
Belugas are completely white whales. They lack dorsal fins, like the narwhal, and have a thick layer of blubber to keep them warm in the Arctic seas. Their heads are bulbous and rounded due to an organ known as a melon that helps them with echolocation, a process that involves using sonar to navigate. This organ can change shape and helps the beluga produce a wide range of underwater sounds. They can grow up to 18 feet and weight as much as 3,500 lbs.
Belugas mate during the first half of the year, and gestation can last a little over 12 months. Females give birth after traveling to warmer waters near the coast. The young whales are dark grey in coloration and will lighten as they grow until they reach the stark white of adults. Females produce calves every three years, and calves depend on their mother for the first two years of life.
As social creatures, belugas often travel in groups. While these groups typically contain around a dozen whales, certain conditions can cause whales to congregate in the thousands. Belugas can dive over 2,000 feet below the ocean's surface in search of food, which consists of fish, squids, crustaceans and plankton. They are curious creatures who often engage in "spyhopping", during which they poke their head out of the water to have a look around.
The beluga whale is a common sight in aquariums, where it is popular for its inquisitive nature and varied facial expressions. Unlike many other whales and dolphins, belugas can create many different shapes with their mouths, and their neck vertebrae are not fused, which allows them more range to move their head and neck. Belugas are also popular for whale watching, particular when they congregate in large numbers during the summer months.
The beluga whale's melon allows it to produce a range of sounds that is much broader in frequency than most other cetaceans, and in captivity they have been known to use this ability to mimic human speech. The most well-known of these was NOC, a whale who lived in the Vancouver Aquarium and was the first beluga to be recorded mimicking human speech. He was even able to trick divers in his tank to get out of the water by making them believe another human had given the "out" command.
These whales are listed as "Near Threatened" and it's believed the total population numbers in the 150,000 range. They are preyed upon by killer whales and polar bears, but humans are the biggest threat to their continued existence. Commercial whaling has severely reduced the beluga's numbers, and pollution from chemicals and heavy metals is a serious cause for concern.
Princeton Field Guides: Whales, Dolphins and Other Marine Mammals; Shirihai & Jarrett; 2016
Guide to Marine Mammals of the World; Reeves, Stewart, Clapham & Powell; 2008