Whales are among the most popular creatures in the oceans: big, slow, and endlessly fascinating, whales have long held a fascination for humans. Now, a new study reveals that Beluga whales – the famed white whales – form friendships just like humans do.
The beluga whale – variously known as the white whale or the sea canary because of its high pitched sing-song calls – forms friendships outside the family group that last a lifetime just as humans do, according to a new study from the Florida Atlantic University in the United States.
These distinctive whales are born brown or grey but fade to become white as an adult and while that colour remains with them for the rest of their lives, it also appears that their relationships last a lifetime, too.
They often form groups that reach beyond their immediate family to include belugas who may be either distantly related or non-related in similar ways to that group bonding and friendships spring up between human beings. These groups, in turn, become supportive and lasting, perhaps lasting even as long as the whale’s 70-year-life span.
The groundbreaking study conducted by the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida, uses molecular genetic techniques and field studies to bring together decades of research examining the complex relationships among groups of beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas). This research bridges 10 locations across the Arctic, from Alaska to Canada and Russia to Norway.
The study, recently published in Scientific Reports journal, says that its finding goes against previous findings that determined that beluga whales mostly socialise among close relatives through the maternal line.
In partnership with native communities in the Arctic, the researchers observed the beluga whales at 10 locations.
“Most social groupings were not predominantly organised around close maternal relatives,” says Professor Gregory O’Corry-Crowe, who led the study.
“They [the beluga groupings] comprised both kin and non-kin, many group members were paternal rather than maternal relatives, and unrelated adult males often travelled together.”
Professor O’Corry-Crowe has spent years studying beluga whales’ population structure, movement patterns, and habitat use. “But I’ve always wondered how their societies are organised and function,” he says. So, he and his team set out to find the answers to those questions.
“I think the finding that, in most cases, beluga whale social groups are predominantly composed of either distant relatives or non-kin was a surprise,” Professor O’Corry-Crowe says.
Known for their bulbous foreheads and lively noises, belugas talk to each other through a series of clicks, chirps, and whistles. Each year, the whales travel south when Arctic ice forms, and return poleward in the spring to feed. They eat salmon, herring, shrimp, crabs, and molluscs.
“Close [beluga] relatives did not always associate in a group, but the fact that they could be in another group close by was supported by field observations where individually recognized whales were observed moving between groups, and even group types, over a few days, and in some cases a few hours,” the authors wrote. “By contrast, unrelated whales can spend long periods of time and cover considerable distances together, and sometimes split up only to come back together.”
He later added, “Unlike killer and pilot whales, and like some human societies, beluga whales don’t solely or even primarily interact and associate with close kin. Across a wide variety of habitats and among both migratory and resident populations, they form communities of individuals of all ages and both sexes that regularly number in the hundreds and possibly the thousands.”
The study, authors also wrote, that: “We propose that beluga whales, across a wide variety of habitats and among both migratory and resident populations, form communities of individuals of all ages and both sexes that regularly number in the hundreds and possibly the thousands.”
Belugas are widely recognised as being among the friendliest of whale species. Last year, a group of belugas adopted a narwhal – a medium-sized black and white spotted species of whale with a large protruding tusk – in what scientists called an exceedingly rare case of interspecies adoption.