The Beacon

Blog Tags: Aquariums

Creature Feature: Beluga Whale

belugawhale

Belugas are the only whales that can make facial expressions ©NOAA

Think that you could survive in the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean? Probably not, but beluga whales have certainly found a way.

The beluga whale, sometimes known as the white whale, is an unusual-looking marine mammal. A typical individual can be 13-20 feet long, and with its white coloring and distinctively lumpy head, the beluga is one of a kind. You can find belugas way up north in the waters of Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and Russia.

Beluga whales have many adaptations that allow them to live in extremely cold waters. They don’t have a dorsal fin, which is believed to help them survive under ice. They have round bodies and a thick layer of blubber to keep out the cold.

So what’s with that protruding lump on the beluga’s head? It’s called a melon, and other marine mammals like dolphins and porpoises have it too. It’s an organ with lots of oils and fats that is believed to be important during echolocation. The melon of a beluga whale is unique: by blowing air around its sinuses, a beluga whale can change the shape of its melon, which may be used in specialized under-ice echolocation.

The beluga whale is referred to as a sea canary, because of its high-pitched song. Individuals use squeaks, clucks and whistles to communicate with each other. Belugas are a very social species, and live together in groups called pods. When they move into bays, estuaries, and rivers during the summer they have been known to congregate in the thousands. Pods aren’t permanent though—belugas switch social groups frequently, sometimes moving hundreds of miles to join another group.

Beluga whales are smart and playful, and like to spit water at other whales or their keepers in aquariums. They’re the only whale species that’s commonly kept in aquariums, though captive breeding programs haven’t been successful.

Worldwide, beluga whales are ranked as near threatened by the IUCN. A subpopulation in the Cook Inlet in Alaska is listed as critically endangered. They suffer from pollution, especially in the rivers and estuaries they spend their summers in—there have been incidents of cancer in beluga whales linked to pollution in the St. Lawrence River. If we want these unique whales to be around in the future, we have to keep their environment safe and clean.


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The Scanner: Moving Forward Edition

Happy Friday, everyone.

It's been a rough few weeks for the oceans at CITES, but now it's time to pick up the pieces. If CITES taught us anything, it's that the work of the ocean conservation community is more important than ever.

This week in ocean news,

....Rick at Malaria, Bed bugs, Sea Lice and Sunsets discussed one of the more shady aspects of CITES: the secret ballots, which were invoked for votes on bluefin tuna, sharks, polar bears, and deep water corals.

…The Washington Post reported that Maryland is cracking down on watermen who catch oysters in protected sanctuaries or with banned equipment. Once a principal source of oysters, the Chesapeake now provides less than 5 percent of the annual U.S. harvest.

…For the first time, scientists were able to use videos to observe octupuses’ behavioral responses. The result? The octupuses had no consistent reaction to one film -- in other words, they had no “personality.” Curiously, other cephalopods display consistent personalities for most of their lives.

…The New York Times wondered if the 700,000 saltwater home aquariums in the United States and the associated trade in reef invertebrates are threatening real reef ecosystems.


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