Each year, scientists spend hundreds of hours observing and photographing belugas. Flying over the St. Lawrence enables them to count how many live in the St. Lawrence.
Now it is your turn to discover and share your knowledge of the St. Lawrence Beluga based on nine themes: Reproduction, Calving, Breathing, Feeding Habits, Communication, Echolocation, Evolution, Distribution, Pods. But first, here is your mission.
Find which among the pod of nine belugas, is the one that is covered in the sub-theme assigned to the team.
Answer the questions related to your sub-theme in your Science Log.
An Newborn Every Three Years
Like almost every other mammal, the baby develops in the mother's womb. The gestation period is relatively long, ranging from 12 to 15 months. Females reach sexual maturity between 8 and 14 years of age, thus explaining why it takes so many years before belugas can begin reproducing. Moreover, a female can give birth to only one calf every three years. Such a long breeding cycle slows the progression of a population that is already low and endangered.
Calving takes place during the summer, and the baby, or calf, is born tail first. A newborn calf measures 1.5 metres long, around half the size of the mother. It can instinctively swim to the surface to breathe and make sounds. The newborn immediately begins to feed on the mother's milk by sucking on the teats to release it from the udder; in the same way other mammals do. During the first two years, the calf remains dependent on the mother and continues to be nurtured with its fat-laden milk. The latter also contains pollutants absorbed by the mother throughout its life.
A Very Deep Breath!
Beluga whales breathe with lungs, just like other mammals. Before diving, a beluga surfaces 2 or 3 times to fill its lungs with air. Its blowhole can spout water up to 2 metres high, but the stream can rarely be seen. Belugas can usually remain under water for 2 to 15 minutes at a time. They can easily dive to a depth of 40 metres and have been known to reach even greater depths when necessary. This marine wonder ranks as a relatively slow swimmer, rarely exceeding 22 kilometres per hour, and often uses currents to reach its destination. Belugas that come to the surface in more populated areas can be injured or killed by collisions with boats.
In the DarkBelugas have excellent eyesight. However, because sunlight cannot penetrate more than a dozen metres through water, the beluga often ends up swimming in pitch darkness. Like other toothed whales, the beluga uses echolocation; a system that allows it to find its way around in the dark. Thanks to the melon, a lump of tissue at the centre of its forehead, the beluga uses ultrasonic waves to navigate, find prey, communicate and locate patches of open water to breathe. Its ability to use ultrasonic waves to find its way is very similar to that of radar utilised by ships to navigate in foggy weather. Did you know that bats are nocturnal animals that also use ultrasound to navigate and hunt?
Highly Sociable MammalsBelugas are remarkable talkers and have earned the nickname "Canaries of the Sea" because of their songs and chatter. Their repertoire covers over 150 000 different chants, whistles or sounds that truly amaze scientists. These sounds are used to communicate with other belugas and enable the pod to stay together. Its outstanding hearing ability enables it to easily track such a wide array of sounds. In the St. Lawrence and Saguenay Rivers, noise pollution caused by ships can scramble its communication signals or limit its ability to find food.
The Dangers of Being at the Top
It's chowder time! Belugas are toothed whales that are part of an Arctic and sub-Arctic species of cetaceans. It uses its teeth to grab its prey - composed mainly of fish - that it swallows without chewing. Its predators, such as the orca, or killer whale, are rarely seen in the St. Lawrence. As with other whales, the beluga is at the top of the food chain. By eating its prey, it absorbs human-caused pollution found in the St. Lawrence; a significant danger to its health. These contaminants make it more vulnerable to infectious diseases and the development of cancers.
Note: To determine the age of a beluga, simply count the growth layer markings on its teeth.
Belugas are very gregarious little whales. They prefer to congregate in pairs or in pods of dozens of whales. Depending on the time of year, pods are formed according to specific criteria, including age and sex. Hence, during the summer season, large groups of females can be seen with their newborns and youngest calves. Our observations show no population status improvement despite our efforts to protect the species and reduce pollution.
Note: Scientitsts have learned to recognize 200 individual belugas in the estuary through their distinctive features and scars!
Around the WorldBeluga whales can be found in various other areas around the world. They live mostly in the Arctic region, Scandinavia, and Russia, as well as in Alaska and Canada. The worldwide population stands at about 100 000 whales. However, St. Lawrence belugas remain isolated from other populations. With about 1 000 whales, this small population lives year-round in the Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence; a waterway with pollution flowing in from the Great Lakes and upper St. Lawrence areas. This location and direct exposure to human-caused pollution are making the white whale more vulnerable to epidemics and ecological disasters.
An Endangered Species
Belugas have been roaming the St. Lawrence for 10 000 years. They have long been hunted for meat, hides, and blubber. Around 1870, the St. Lawrence was home to an estimated 7 800 to 10 000 belugas.
In the 1920's, fishermen literally declared war on the charming little white whales. The latter were accused of being serious competitors for fish and thus were harming the fishing industry. Fishermen even gave the "Sea Canary" a new nickname: "The White Demon". For over 10 years, the Government went as far as offering payment of bounty for each beluga that was killed. It was not until 1979, that all forms of hunting were banned in the St. Lawrence. Today, it is estimated that about 1 000 beluga whales remain in Quebec's famed waterway.
Note: The oil extracted by melting the beluga's blubber was used to fuel oil lamps.