Do beluga whales have friends?
Belugas live in groups. Sometimes these groups contain hundreds of individuals, at other times just a few. A greater understanding of the nature and function of these groups is imperative to successfully direct conservation efforts.
To go through the looking glass
Over 200 beluga whales have been photo-identified since 1986. Individual files based on these observations provide ways to study the belugas’ habits, reproductive success, and social organization. The genetic analysis of biopsies of known belugas offers information on their gender and family structures.
There is segregation within the beluga whale population. Females and young generally use the upstream portion of the summer range. They form three communities, each occupying its own territory. Associations between females of the same community are variable. As for the adult males, they frequent the central and downstream portions of their summer distribution area. There are two networks of males subdivided into clans. These clans are small groups of males that develop stable associations.
Parks Canada, Ministère de l’Environnement et de la Faune du Québec, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, World Wildlife Fund Canada, Canadian Wildlife Service, Fondation de la faune du Québec, NOAA, Park Foundation and Croisières AML Cruises.
I want to know more
Every summer since 1986, we have been spending hundreds of hours at sea among the belugas. Using natural markings and distinctive scars, we have learned to recognize over 400 individuals. Observation files on these animals are the basis upon which we are slowly re-constructing the story of the St. Lawrence beluga. We are following their movements, observing their habits, and listening to their songs and echoes to better understand their way of life and their needs.
Work at sea is but a small part of our job. Back at the research station a truly tedious task begins. Every summer we bring back thousands of our encounters with the belugas, representing from 800 to 1000 “captures”: a trade word for a series of snapshots taken of the same individual during a single encounter. Each season’s captures are compared amongst themselves and then checked with the family album containing known animals in an attempt to identify every beluga encountered in the field. Some are “captured” many times each summer, while others remain more elusive.
In 1994, a new twist was added to the protocol. Using a small stainless steel dart fired from a crossbow, we are able to collect a few milligrams of skin and blubber from the backs of selected animals. We are thus able to obtain invaluable tissue samples from live animals without the need to capture or restrain them. DNA is extracted from these biopsies and used for gender identification and genetic studies, including possibly describing the lineage of members of individual pods.
A segregated society!
Since 1985, surveys and patrols of the summer range of the beluga have clearly shown that there are different social groups using distinct sectors of the Estuary. The Upper Estuary, a zone upstream from the mouth of the Saguenay where fresh water and salt water meet, is mostly used by pods of adults accompanied by young and very young animals. We believe these are adult females with their own young. The Lower Estuary, a colder and more marine area downstream of the Saguenay mouth, is the regular haunt of large groups of adults, presumably males. Between these two zones, around the mouth of the Saguenay Fjord, is a central area where all kinds of social groups are seen and where one may sometimes observe impressive herds of up to 200 belugas.
This type of segregation between males and females with young was confirmed by a broad scan of the photographic archives. By following up on every member of the family album, we have learned some of the basic rules of the social life of a beluga.
Michaud, R. 1996. Les bélugas du Saint-Laurent : étude de la distribution et de l’organisation sociale 1995-1997. Rapport annuel 1995-1996. INESL, Tadoussac, Québec. 36 pp. (The St. Lawrence beluga: A study of their distribution and social structure. Annual report 1995-1996).