Does social hierarchy exist in belugas?

  • Les bélugas sont des animaux très grégaires, vivant en paire et en groupe allant jusqu'à une douzaine d'individus. / The beluga whale is a gregarious animal living in pairs and in groups of 3 to several dozen individuals. © GREMM
    18 / 12 / 2017 Par Stéphanie Tremblay - / / /

    Most of the time, belugas are observed in groups of multiple individuals; rarely are they seen alone. Since they live in groups, a certain social organization reigns. Does this mean that there is a hierarchy amongst them?

    No in-depth studies have been conducted in this area, but some studies suggest that belugas display a certain social organization from a very early age, i.e. the post-natal period. Mothers and their calves would therefore be at the heart of the group’s social stability.

    Since calves lack the skills required to demonstrate their social status to other belugas themselves, their mothers take over. © GREMM

    Since calves lack the skills required to demonstrate their social status to other belugas themselves, their mothers take over. Indeed, by adopting certain positions such as “at the mother’s tail” or “at the mother’s side”, the calf is always very close to its mother, which leads other members of the herd to view them as a single individual. Thus, the offspring is considered to have the same hierarchical status as its mother.

    Belugas sometimes compete to demonstrate their superiority. Indeed, some male belugas will bump heads with their opponent to earn the right to mate with the desired female. This behaviour is known as “butting”.

    Additionally, during the summer months, belugas gather to form herds. These herds, which form during sedentary periods, play an important role in the social organization of belugas: they foster contact between different individuals and help maintain the stability of the community.

    Even if such behaviour has yet to be thoroughly studied in belugas – meaning it is still premature to discuss the existence of hierarchy – other cetacean species act according to the typical behaviours of hierarchical networks: sparring to determine superiority, using vocalizations to maintain social status, forming groups of males that gravitate around females, post-menopausal female killer whales (article in French) that care for calves, etc.

    Sources :

    (2009). KRASNOVA, V.V. et al. “Zoology of Vertebrates: Formation of behavior in the White Sea Beluga Calf, Delphinapterus leucas, during Early Postnatal Ontogenesis”. Russian Journal of Marine Biology. Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 53-59.

    (2006). KRASNOVA, V.V. et al. “Zoology: Mother-Infant Spatial Relations in Wild Beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) during Postnatal Development under Natural Conditions”. Biology Bulletin. Vol. 33, No. 1, pp.53-58.

    (2014). KRASNOVA, V.V. et al. “Zoology: Parental Behavior of the Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas) in Natural Environment”. Biology Bulletin. Vol. 41, No. 4, pp. 349-356.


    Stéphanie Tremblay, with her insatiable appetite for science, joined the GREMM team this year as part of her professional writing internship. A passionate writer, she contributes to Whales Online. With the tips of her fingers, she takes you into Quebec’s world of cetaceans and guides you through a vast ocean of topics.