Belugas
 

Common Name: Beluga or White Whale

Class: Mammalia

Order: Cetacea

Suborder: Odontoceti

Family: Monodontidae

Genus: Delphinapteras

Species: Delphinapteras leucas

 

Taxonomy/Description

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.

Habitat/Diet

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.

Behavior/Reproduction

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.

Conservation

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.

 

Content provided by Canisius College students under the direction of Michael Noonan, PhD.