Beluga whales

Beluga whales are one of the most fascinating species of the far north. We have been fortunate enough to study this species in the wild from Alaska to Canada, and from Russia to Norway's Svalbard archipelago.

The beluga, or white whale, is central to the cultures of Native Peoples across the Arctic and subarctic and we have partnered with these communities to study, conserve and co-manage these whales.

Every aspect of this species' life is astounding from the incredible depths they dive and distances they can travel under the ice to their epic migrations and complex societies. We are deploying modern scientific techniques, including molecular genetics, satellite telemetry, acoustic monitoring and drone-based remote sensing, along with classic notebook-and-pencil observation and the Traditional Ecological knowledge, or TEK, of our Native partners to delve deeper into the behavior, ecology and evolution of these incredible animals.

Vicki Beaver - NOAA - NSB

Currently, our collaborators and supporters include:

Beluga whale social organization, kinship and culture: Why are some species of whale social? Do whales have culture? What role does kinship play in whale societies? These are some of the questions we are addressing with one of the most gregarious of whales, the beluga whale.

We've been working on this for a while now, travelling to some of the most remote locations in the Arctic and subarctic to observe belugas in the wild, to tag and track them via satellite, and to biopsy sample free-swimming whales for genetic analyses of relatedness.

This has been a huge collaborative effort involving many scientists, agencies and Native community partners and spans the species range from Alaska to Canada, Russia to Norway. Much of the research you are about to read about below has been conducted in collaboration with Robert Suydam and his colleagues at the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, and Lori Quakenbush and John Citta at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. To all our partners and colleagues we appreciate your support and contributions.

So what have we learned so far? 

Migratory culture: Native peoples across the Arctic have long known about, and depended upon, the annual migrations of belugas and their traditional use of nearshore locations in summer where these whales molt, feed and raise their young. We have built on this traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK, with genetic and telemetry studies. Early studies found genetic differences among the migratory groups suggesting they were demographically distinct sub-populations and populations that should be managed as separate stocks. Recently, we discovered that closely related whales returned to the same locations year after year ...and generation after generation. This was final proof of natal philopatry (a return to place of birth) to migration routes in belugas, and we proposed that this represented migratory culture where knowledge of migration routes and destinations was acquired via social learning from other community members, most likely we surmised from close kin, namely their mothers. See:

Greg O'Corry-Crowe

Group structure and kinship: Despite the countless hours many of us have spent in the field observing belugas, there were a few fundamental aspects of beluga society that we still had few insights into. These were the types of groups they form and whether beluga whale groups were kin-based. Evolutionary explanations for mammalian sociality typically center on inclusive-fitness benefits of associating and cooperating with close kin, or close maternal kin in some whale societies like killer whales and sperm whales. It was widely suspected, even assumed, that belugas were similar. We set out to find out.

Field observations and genetic analysis of beluga whale social groups and herds from 10 locations across the Arctic revealed that belugas form a limited number of group types, and that these groups did contain closely related individuals. However, contrary to predictions most whale groupings were not predominantly organized around maternal relatives, and tended to contain both kin and non-kin. This suggests that the evolutionary mechanisms that shape beluga societies are complex where fitness benefits may be achieved through reciprocity and mutualism as well as kin selection. See the above video and the paper pdf here:

So, a lot to ponder! And what does this tell us about social learning and culture? ......You've guessed it, this is where we are going next.

Lisa Barry NOAA/NMFS

permit No. 20465

Changing sea-ice and shifts in beluga migration patterns: A growing concern about beluga whales, and Arctic fauna in general, is how will they adapt to climate related changes in sea-ice. We took a novel approach to addressing this question by combining decades of: (a) sighting data collected by Native subsistence hunters and scientists, (b) genetic profiling of beluga whales, and (c) passive microwave-derived sea-ice concentration data to see if the annual patterns of beluga whale migrations changed over the recent period of dramatic sea-ice change in Alaska. Incredibly, beluga whales demonstrated highly consistent patterns of migration and residency indicating an ability to accommodate widely varying sea-ice conditions in order to perpetuate philopatry to coastal migration destinations. However, we did find a number of anomalous migration events and these coincided with anomalous ice years, and in one case with an increase in killer whale sightings and predation on belugas. Such behavioral shifts were likely driven by changing sea-ice and associated changes in resource dispersion and predation risk. See:

Laura Morse

permit No. 782-1719

So, it appears that beluga whales can alter their behavior if conditions demand it. We are now focused on figuring out how this informs us about social learning, culture and resilience in this species in a time of change.

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