Beluga: My Favourite Extreme Mammal

An educator points to a beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) model that hangs from a gallery ceiling.

For Sarah, the beluga is the most extreme mammal ever. Here she points to the model on display in the museum's RBC Blue Water Gallery. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

Four Canadian Museum of Nature staff members have each adopted a favourite extreme mammal. Follow them in this blog to see what’s so special about these awesome creatures. You’ll be certain to have all the cool and extreme info on these mammals when you search for them during your next visit!

Over there, way off in the distance, I saw them! There were a whole bunch of them, just white specs in the distance that would appear then disappear, almost rhythmically. This was my first natural encounter with these amazing white whales, the belugas, while on a whale-watching excursion on the St. Lawrence River, off the coast of Tadoussac, Quebec. This experience may have lasted only a few short moments, but the memory of it has kept with me for a very long time. For this reason, the beluga—on display as a life-sized model in our RBC Blue Water Gallery—is my pick for my favourite extreme mammal!

And yes, belugas are extreme! They may not be very big, compared to other whales that they share the oceans with, but its ability to do some pretty crazy things definitely makes them extreme contenders.

Two belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) with their heads above the surface.

Belugas (Delphinapterus leucas). Image: iStockphoto.com/Plasticsteak1 © Plasticsteak1

For example, did you know that belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) have been nicknamed the “canaries of the sea” because of their ability to emit high-pitched squeaks, squeals, clucks and whistles? These sounds can be heard not only under the water, but also above the surface!

Not extreme enough for you? Well, how about their ability to vary their facial expression by altering the shape of their forehead and lips? This ability allows them to smile or frown. However, these expression-changes do not necessarily indicate their mood, but rather, are done to emit various sounds in order to communicate to other pod members.

Belugas also swim in pretty extreme temperatures. They live way up in the freezing cold waters of the Arctic and the sub-Arctic; however, many populations do migrate south to warmer waters in the summer. During this season, they’re often spotted in estuaries (where a freshwater river meets a saltwater ocean) hunting their preferred meals, including a variety of fish, squids, crustaceans and octopuses.

While swimming in frigid waters, belugas even have the ability to break up ice as thick as 10 cm with their large, melon-shaped heads. And, unlike most whales, belugas have the ability to swim backwards, which proves to be a huge advantage when escaping potential predators such as killer whales (Orcinus orca) and the occasional polar bear (Ursus maritimus).

Finally, one of the most extreme things about belugas is their gestation period, which can be up to 15 months long. Imagine being pregnant for almost a year and a half! When the calf is born, it isn’t white like its mother, but instead will be blue to brownish-red for the first year of its life. In their second year, they turn grey to bluish, until eventually the pigments (or melanin) slowly fade; by six years old they are completely white.

A female beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) swims with her calf.

A female beluga and her calf. Image: iStockphoto.com/cmeder © cmeder

Like those of many other mammals, the calves are nursed on their mother’s milk, which is of 28% fat, and they are weaned in one to two years. Belugas will only reach maturity by seven to nine years of age, and many have been known to stay in the same pod as their mother their whole lives.

So, for all you naysayers who think belugas are too cute and friendly to be an extreme mammal, I say think again! These marine mammals are able to perform a multitude of extreme features and can even live in an extreme environment! And that, my friends, is pretty extreme!

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