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(on video) In Video: Baby Beluga Birth at Georgia Aquarium The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta celebrated a joyous event a few weeks ago…
We are north of the Pacific Ocean. To the east, to our right, the frozen plains of Alaska. To the west lies the Siberian land. Very close, to the north, is the Arctic Circle and its expanse of pack ice as far as the eye can see. Here the Bering Strait separates the two giants, America and Eurasia. It is summer, mild temperatures announce the retreat of the snow. But for now, white and silence dominate. The sea is so calm that no one could guess what is happening today. We have an appointment with an event that happens only once a year. An extraordinary event. But to see it you have to go to the other side, behind the brown mirror of water. In these seemingly inaccessible cold waters, thousands of species live to the rhythm of the seasons. He was there. We hear them before we see them. The sea is not silent. By calming your breathing, allowing yourself to be still near the water, you can listen to the life around us.
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Their white silhouette reflects sunlight. They swim slowly, rotate, bump into each other. By the appearance of the large dolphins dressed in white, you may have recognized them: they are belugas. While the first group moves towards us, the second, a little further, emerges from the depths of the ocean. We were suddenly surrounded by hundreds of white whales. Young children can be easily identified: their skin is still brown. They are the children of the group. Looks like they have dated. And it’s an appointment that is no coincidence… but we’ll come back to that later. Because the spectacle is captivating. All around us, these marine giants, up to 5 meters long and weighing more than 1,000 kg, float as if weightlessly in the cold waters of the Arctic. At birth, babies already weigh 80 kg, which is the same as an adult human!
The beluga, like the whale or dolphin, is a marine mammal, belonging to the cetacean family. It lives in the northern waters of our planet. Its scientific name, delphinapterus leucas, means “finless dolphin” in Ancient Greek. Because, unlike the common dolphin or shark, its figure, white as snow, has no fins. Instead, it has a thin crest that runs along its back. Its beak, parted in a wide smile, reveals sharp teeth, very useful for eating fish and shellfish. Small eyes, on each side of its head, give the beluga a large field of vision. Like all marine mammals, our cetacean comes to the surface to breathe thanks to its blowhole, a small hole located on the top of its skull. And its vent is also used to make bubbles!
“Canary of the Sea” lives in a universe of sound
The beluga’s real trump card is neither its field of vision nor its sharp teeth. No, its key asset is its sonar. Like its cousin the dolphin – which gives its friends first names, remember, we talked about it in a previous episode – like the dolphin, the beluga is able to take sound pictures of its environment. To find its way in the water, in depths where sunlight is scarce, it emits sounds by vibrating membranes located in its nose, which are more or less equivalent to our vocal cords. These sounds are amplified by an organ, the melon, This large bulge on the beluga’s forehead is what makes it recognizable among thousands of people, and (we won’t lie) what makes it a little strange.
The sounds emitted by the beluga, made more powerful by its melons, travel through the water, and then bounce off things they encounter: boats floating on the ice, fish. When they reach an obstacle, the sounds bounce back to the beluga, vibrating through its jaws to its inner ear and informing it that there is something in that direction. The beluga’s brain then creates a kind of map, an instantaneous picture of its surroundings. Quite a superpower, right?
,Beluga communicate with their conspecifics by emitting whispers, clicks, squeaks and growls,
Beluga is perfectly adapted to life in the sound zone of the ocean. And as you may have noticed, it’s a real chatterbox! It communicates with its conspecifics by emitting sounds such as whispers, clicks, squeaks and grunts. It has even been nicknamed the Sea Canary due to its constant purring! Their vocal repertoire is so diverse that it takes several years for baby belugas to fully express themselves. Because communication is essential for these animals, who live in groups and maintain deep bonds with their companions. Belugas are social animals. Look at them, they traveled together, and were barely away from each other! They will spend the summer here. Because like every year, at the same time, cetaceans migrate from their winter areas, a little further north, towards coastal waters, where they will hang out throughout the summer. They make their way by swimming through the ice for several months, sometimes traveling thousands of kilometers. This phenomenon is called “summer migration”. Year after year, they take the same route, follow the same underwater path and find the same bay. Everywhere from north to south across the Bering Strait, thousands of belugas are doing just that.
But why are they meeting here? How do they find themselves in the same place year after year? As you can imagine, this extraordinary behavior immediately piqued the scientists’ curiosity, and you’ll find they made a surprising discovery about the beluga’s extraordinary intelligence.
An immigrant culture passed down from generation to generation
A team of researchers from around the world tracked the movements of more than 1,600 belugas living in the Arctic waters of Siberia and Alaska for 30 years. He brought together the research done by his predecessors and followed the belugas to access the information they needed: their DNA. DNA is information present in every cell of our body. This information is a kind of biological code, specific to each individual, completely unique, and which will determine for example the color of our eyes, the color of our hair, but also some aspects of our character. Our DNA is somewhat like our biological identity card, or to be more precise, it is genetic. There is one in all living things. And so this is important information for researchers! This allows them to know if the belugas they are studying belong to the same family: are they cousins, siblings, parents, or children?
By comparing these genetic identification cards to the sea routes taken by belugas during their migration, the researchers made an extraordinary discovery. They realized that the belugas coming together belonged to the same family and all migrated to their place of birth. Of course, lots of animals migrate: fishes, birds, or even turtles… but what makes belugas’ migrations so extraordinary is that they don’t use chemical or magnetic clues to find their way. Among the belugas, one can learn about migration.
In fact, beluga mothers pass on their knowledge of sea routes to their children. They teach them to find their way in the vastness of the Arctic waters and return to the place where they were born. When knowledge is transmitted socially in this way, we speak of culture. So belugas are not just migratory animals, they have a migratory culture. And that changes everything! Researchers believe that these migrations allow them to adapt to seasonal changes, for example to find food. This is evidence of astonishing social intelligence and complex cognitive abilities. Which is another way of saying that they’re really smart.
Narwhal’s adoption and imitation of human voices
And belugas’ extraordinary abilities don’t stop there! Do you remember those bubbles they were blowing earlier? Well, scientists have discovered that they produce them singly or in groups, with no real use, just for fun. These little pranksters also have big hearts: on several occasions groups of belugas have adopted narwhals. Narwhals are also called sea unicorns because they have long, needle-shaped teeth and can reach up to 3 meters in length! They are cousins of the beluga, but they are not the same species, which makes understanding them, even if rare, extraordinary.
And you might have heard about the beluga named Knock who became famous because of his most amazing ability. Nok was a captive beluga whale living in a pond in San Diego, United States. Unfortunately he was one of the belugas separated from their natural environment, but today, things are changing, and more and more voices are being raised against this type of practice. During these long years spent in the pool, Nock rubbed shoulders with belugas, dolphins, and humans.
And one day, while going about their business near Nok Pond, scientists heard strange sounds. Sounds that sounded suspiciously like human conversation. When they found out that Knock had created them, everyone was shocked. In knock speech, we don’t really distinguish any words, it’s a kind of babbling conversation. But this is already a real achievement for the beluga, which, by contracting the muscles of its nostrils in a different way, tries to produce a deeper sound than usual. Nock had found a hobby: he imitated the way humans spoke. extraordinary, isn’t it?