You may have heard of the Killer Whale, the Humpback Whale, or even the Gray Whale; but have you ever heard of the Beluga Whale? Although the Beluga Whale receives little attention compared to other species (Mikhail 2011, 1), it is a very unique and intriguing animal. The Beluga Whale inherits many unique qualities and characteristics such as its classification, overall appearance, adaptations, behavior, its distinct habitat, the process in which it migrates and reproduces, and even its dangerous survival status. Each of the qualities that the Beluga possesses make it a very unique animal in itself.
To begin, the Beluga Whale's name is derived from the Russian term "bielo" which denotes the word white. As one can infer, the Beluga Whale inherited its name because of the white color of its coat. The Beluga Whale is also more commonly referred to as the White Whale, which is obviously more apparent to the meaning of its name (Anonymous 2011b, 2). Likewise, the whales genus, Delphinapterus, means "whale without fins" and its species, leucas, means white (Anonymous 2010a, 1). The Beluga is classified as Animila, Chordata, Mammalia, Cetacea, Odontoceti, Monodontidae, Delphinapterus, and Delphinapterus leucas (Anonymous 2011b, 1). Scientists and researchers have minimum data and evidence to support and illustrate how the Beluga Whales evolved and developed, thus this idea still remains an unsolved mystery. However, with the minimal amount of evidence that has been collected and interpreted, there is no doubt that all of the different species of whales evolved from creatures that were once able to navigate and walk on land with the limbs that they inherited. These creatures lived on land but were able to enter shallow water. An occurrence may have interrupted their way of life and made them dependent on living in the water to be able to survive (Mikhail 2011, 14). Most of this evidence is derived from research on the different relatives of the whale species. The closest relative to the Beluga Whale is the Narwhal.
||To proceed, the habitat of every species of whale varies greatly. Although all whales live in the water, Beluga Whales prefer habitats in only arctic and sub-arctic regions. Most commonly, Beluga Whales are located in the arctic regions of the northern hemisphere, as well as the arctic ocean and its adjoining seas (Anonymous 2012d, 1). They may also live in areas such as the waters of Alaska, Canada, Russia, Norway, and Greenland. However, the more confined and isolated whales may aggrandize more towards subarctic regions, as far as the Yukon and St. Lawrence River of Canada (Shedd 2001,1). Beluga Whales often prefer living in shallow waters, mostly including bays and estuaries. They are one of the few species of whales that prefers to live in a cold watered and icy environment. When this ice melts Belugas tend to migrate towards the north, where fresh water estuaries can be found (Friedman 2006, 1). During the summer months Beluga populations are generally found in warm-water inlets and river basins (Wright 1994, 2). On the contrary, during the winter times different Beluga populations can be located in the southern arctic swimming among ice flows and icebergs where temperatures are able to drop below freezing (Anonymous 2012d, 2). As it seems, belugas are well adapted to both a chilly ocean environment and a freshwater abode with warmer surroundings.
|Next, the physical appearance of the beluga whale is very distinguishable compared to other types of whales. The Beluga whale is a robust, stout whale. The coloration of the Beluga whale is by far it's most important characteristic mainly because this is how it got it's name. Beluga Whales are always born a dark gray color, but as the whales mature, they transition into a creamy white or off-white color. Their skin or coat gradually begins to change its color at age six and is turned almost completely white at about the age of thirteen (Anonymous 2012e, 2). The coloration of the Beluga Whale ultimately helps and allows them to blend into the underwater environment disguising them from any major predators (Friedman 2006, 5) Beluga whales are around sixteen feet in length and can weigh up to 3,000 pounds once they are fully matured. A majority of their weight is from the blubber that they carry in order to stay warm and adapt to the cold arctic waters that they might live in.
Unlike sharks or dolphins, Beluga Whales have no dorsal fin. Because of their lack of a dorsal fin, they maintain heat and can swim closer and easier towards ice sheets when trying to look for a hole to breath out of (Anonymous 2012e, 6). Dorsal fins are useful for swimming, and because Beluga Whales do not have one, they have inherited a fluke. Flukes are connective tissue that contain no bone, and help the whale with control over their movement and navigation. Also, this fluke or tough dorsal ridge can be used to break open ice if there are not any open holes for the Beluga to breath out of. (Anonymous 2012e, 4).
|Belugas have a small head, accompanied by a short beak and an overly exaggerated round "melon" or "forehead" located just above its blowhole. The Beluga's bulging forehead may seem like a pointless and odd characteristic to attain, however, the prominent melon of the beluga whale is able to use echolocation. Echolocation is the process of distributing and sending out a variety of different noises and sounds using the sacs around the blowhole of the Beluga. It is for this unique quality, that the Beluga Whale has been nicknamed "the canary of the sea" (Walter 2007, 1). Not only does the Beluga's melon use echolocation, it also plays a large role in the location of cracks and polynyas to surface the water and ultimately be able to breath. The Beluga Whale's prominent forehead sets it apart from any other whale, making this one of its most unique physical characteristics (Anonymous 2011a, 1).
The Beluga Whale inherits a myriad of different structural, behavioral, and physiological adaptations that have developed overtime. These may range from the way the species swims to the way it sleeps. Beluga Whales, along with every other marine mammal, have attained the physiological adaption of diving underwater for a certain period of time. This specific adaptation is what allows the Beluga Whale to live and survive underwater because it implements the conservation of oxygen in the respiratory system that is needed for underwater diving (Anonymous 2012c, 4). Because of the alternating temperatures of the Beluga Whale's environment, the species is constantly having to maintain a safe body temperature that will keep them alive. To do this, a Beluga's circulatory system has accommodate itself to preserve or deplete body heat and cultivate a consistent, safe body temperature (Anonymous 2012c,8). Although the beluga whale is vastly structurally different than many other whales and dolphins, its most major and important structural adaptation is the fact that their cervical vertebrae is not connected. Therefore they have an extremely flexible neck, which is a structure that will not be found on any other species of whale (Mikhail 2011, 3).
Beluga Whales are very dexterous and opportunistic eaters. They are more than happy to prey on the hundreds of bottom-dwelling animals and fish that are available to them (Anonymous 2012a, 1
). However, their regular diet mainly consists of a variety of different fish, squids, and octopus. These whales do not take anytime whatsoever with their food, because the beluga whale swallows it whole, without even chewing it (Mikhail 2011, 8
). Normally, a Beluga Whale will eat about three percent of their body weight every day, so as time goes on and the whale expands in size, they have to increase their food intake. Beluga whales have no specific way or method of collecting food, they basically plunder for a meal near the bottom of shallow waters and their flexible neck serves as an advantage to them in their way of foraging for something to eat (Anonymous 2012a, 2
On average, a Beluga Whale has a lifespan of ten to fifteen years, however longevity depends on the variety of different beluga populations (Shedd 2001, 4
). Some Belugas may even live up to 30 years old. Although Beluga Whales tend to live in small pods and populations, they are very social with each other. Since they are a very close group, Belugas have a very specific way that they travel and migrate in order to protect each other in whichever way they can. As for reproduction, the Beluga Whale will find a mate and reproduce during the migration process, between the months of March and May. This is so that they are able to mate with other whales outside of their own pod. Not every whale mates and reproduces, it is only the ones that have fully matured and have a white color to their skin, so they will be seven to nine years old, on average. Once a Beluga Whale has successfully mated, the gestation period can last up to 15 months, where the female will then swim close to the shoreline and give birth (Mikhail 2011, 10
On the other hand, the Beluga Whale obtains a threatened species survival status. This is a result of a plethora of different reasons and faults; mainly including lethal pollution and illegal hunting. For example, De Guise, a scientific researcher stated, "A small isolated population of beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas
) that are highly contaminated by pollutants, mostly of industrial origin, resides in the St. Lawrence estuary, Quebec...evaluation of thyroid and adrenal glands of contaminated (St. Lawrence) versus much less contaminated (Arctic) belugas is currently under way" (De Guise 1995, 1
). This lethal contamination and pollution is the work of humans. Activities such as oil and gas production, development of fisheries, hydroelectric development and industrial and urban pollution contribute enormously to the decline in the Beluga Whale population (Jefferson 2008, 6
Along with the harmful pollution, human hunting and desolation is by far one of the biggest threats to the Beluga Whale's survival status. Most of this hunting and harvesting happens to inadequate and decreasing subpopulations. In addition to hunting, Beluga Whales have strong philopatry, which in its most basic form means that a species returns to its birthplace consecutively throughout the years. Overall, this results in overexploitation, causing a decline in the population of the species (Jefferson 2008, 5
). Although not yet listed as an endangered species, the Beluga Whale is well on its way to becoming one.
Scientists have conducted numerous studies about the Beluga Whale, but the most extensive research has to do with Beluga Whales and their decreasing population. A former researcher and scientist, De Guise, has studied this decline of Belugas specifically in the St. Lawrence river. He found that a populated area of 400-500 beluga whales were living in a contaminated estuary in the St. Lawrence River. Twenty-four carcasses were found and recovered for examination, and as a result revealed high concentrations of organochlorines, heavy metals, and benzo-a-pyrene found in the tissues of these whales (De Guise 1994, 1
). Overall, this pollution and contamination is what is killing off a majority of the beluga whale species.
When I was younger and I went to the aquarium for the first time in my life, the most amazing animal that stood out to me was the Beluga Whale. Though I had no background information of this species, I did not care. I was completely marveled by how grand and amazing the Beluga Whale was. I was amazed at its white coat, how friendly it looked and acted towards all the people, and just how much of an astonishing creature it was. That trip to the aquarium determined what my favorite childhood animal was, and now that I have done research on this marvelous, intriguing species; I now know and understand more about it and the animal has once again sparked an interest in me.
To sum up, the Beluga Whale is a brilliantly unique animal. This is apparent through its prominently distinct characterists of life and the variety of different ways it has adapted to its uncommon environment. Because the Beluga is quickly becoming an extremely endangered species, it is important to be aware of the dangers in harming them and instead begin to help keep the marvelous Beluga species alive.