Cetaceans are famously social animals and belugas are certainly no exception. A recent study, published in Scientific Reports, has formally identified for the first time that belugas' social ties go well beyond close blood relatives, as it was discovered that populations across the Arctic lean on friends as well as family within complex societies.
The groundbreaking study gathered data from decades of research studying the complex societies of beluga whales in 10 locations across the Arctic. These intelligent and highly social mammals use complex vocalizations to communicate within vast social groups and establish close ties with specific individuals.
Led by researchers from the Florida Atlantic University's (FAU) Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, the study revealed that such cooperation merits comparisons to human societies in that these social networks offer a support structure built up of many different kinds of group interactions, from mother-to-calf to unrelated beluga buddies. These animals live for around 70 years and mostly stay within the communities they were born into, bar a few nomadic exceptions, demonstrating that many of these social bonds constitute lifelong friendships.
"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," said Greg O'Corry-Crowe, PhD, lead author and a research professor at FAU's Harbor Branch in a statement. "It may be that their highly developed vocal communication enables them to remain in regular acoustic contact with close relatives even when not associating together."
The group dynamics observed ranged in patterns, with some small groups of around two to 10 individuals to some enormous herds clocking 2,000 individuals or more. Previous research has also revealed that belugas aren’t fussy when it comes to initiating new members, as a narwhal was spotted cruising with a pod of juvenile belugas. It seems this relationship between the two whale species has gotten very friendly in the past, as evidence has been found of a half-narwhal, half-beluga hybrid.
It’s hoped this new understanding of the complexity of beluga social groups, even with unrelated individuals, will help inform future research investigating how the complex group dynamics of these animals may make them resilient or vulnerable to emerging threats such as human interference and climate change.