Common Name: Beluga or White Whale
Belugas belong to the Mammalian Order Cetacea, in the suborder
Odontoceti. All toothed whales belong to the suborder Odontoceti,
which is Latin for "toothed whales". The beluga belongs to the
white whale family, Monodontidae. The other member of this family
is the narwhal. The beluga's scientific name is Delphinapteras
leucas, which means "white dolphin without a dorsal fin". The
word 'beluga' is possibly derived from the Russian word belyi,
which simply means "white". The beluga is easily recognizable by
its entirely white body. Its neck is also very distinct. Unlike
most cetaceans, the beluga's seven neck vertebrae are not fused.
This gives the beluga a large range of neck motion. Males range in
length from 14-16 feet, and weigh about 3300lbs. Females reach
lengths of about 13-14 feet, and weigh about 3000lbs.
Belugas are whales of the far north. The inhabit the Arctic and
subarctic waters off the coast of northern Canada, Europe, and
Russia. They feed primarily upon clams, shrimp, squid, and
sandworms. Fish species include capelin, sandlance, and cod. Most
prey species are bottom dwellers. Their flexible neck permits
sweeping of the ocean floor. Prey is swallowed whole. The beluga
consumes 50-60lbs of food daily.
Herding prey is a common practice by belugas. Five or more whales
will often force small schools of fish into shallow water. Their
flexible neck is especially useful when pursuing prey in deeper,
open waters. Belugas are also very vocal. They chirp and squeal as
they play and hunt. Hence, the nickname "sea canary". Underwater
bubbling has also been observed. Belugas will blow a variety of
bubble shapes, including bubble rings.
Breeding season occurs in the spring. Large groups of belugas
congregate to mate. Calving ensues the following summer, after a 14
month gestation period. Warmer coastal waters are preferred for
calving. Calves are five feet in length at birth, weighing
110-130lbs. Males reach sexual maturity at 8-9 years, while females
sexually mature at five years. Female belugas will bear calves
every 2-3 years.
The current worldwide
beluga estimate is 200,000. Belugas are hunted by most native
Arctic peoples for food and leather. Their natural enemies are
killer whales and polar bears. Pollution is also a threat to
belugas. Their range extends into the St. Lawrence Seaway, which
flows from the Great Lakes water supply. Chemicals and toxins
dumped into the Great Lakes water system flow into the belugas'
habitat. Death and disease has resulted from this pollution.