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Animal Facts: Beluga whale

  • Jun 06, 2019
  • 386 words
  • 2 minutes
Belugas use echolocation to successfully find food which consists of fish, crustaceans and worms. (Photo: Andy Murch/Can geo Photo Club)
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Beluga whales are one of the most recognizable species of whale thanks to their white colouring and thick bodies which are primarily made of blubber (40 to 50 per cent of their bodyweight). 

Fast Facts

Common name: Beluga whale

Scientific nameDelphinapterus leucas 

Inuktut name: ᕿᓇᓗᒐᖅ (qilalugaq)

Type: Mammal

Diet: Carnivore

Group name: Pod

Weight: 500 to 1,500 kilograms

Length: 4 to 6 metres

COSEWIC Status: Endangered

Did you know?

Unlike most whales, a beluga has seven vertebrae in its neck that are not fused, allowing it to turn its head in all directions.

Physical characteristics and behaviour

The beluga whale is one of the smallest species of whale, only able to grow up to four or five metres long. Belugas have sharp teeth, no dorsal fin, and a spindle-shaped body that is wider in the middle and tapers toward the ends, an adaptation that helps it swim under the ice in its Arctic home. Belugas can dive to depths of almost 1,000 metres, and stay underwater for more than 20 minutes at a time!

The word “beluga” comes from a Russian phrase meaning “the white one,” but belugas are actually born a grey or brown colour. With thick layers of blubber to insulate them from cold water, belugas weigh in at anywhere between 500 and 1,500 kilograms.

One particularly notable characteristic of beluga whales is the rounded bulge on their forehead. This bulge is called a melon and is believed to help the whales produce their wide range of sounds, used for communication and echolocation, as well as allowing them to copy a variety of other sounds. The sounds belugas make include clicks, whistles and other vocalizations that make up a complex language used to talk with other belugas in their pod. This language caused early whalers to nickname them the “canaries of the sea.” Their chatter can sometimes be heard through the bottoms of boats!

Diet

Belugas use echolocation to find their food, which consists of fish, crustaceans and worms. 

Habitat and distribution

Belugas live mostly in the Arctic, but migrate south as the ice pack builds up in the fall. There are seven main populations of belugas in Canada. The most southern group lives in the St. Lawrence estuary in Quebec; the others live around Baffin Island, Hudson Bay and in the Beaufort Sea.

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