New research from University of Washington provides important baseline information on beluga whales, which will help researchers better understand how these Arctic animals will be impacted by climate change and human interaction.
The combination of climate change, and potential oil exploration and increased shipping could have big impacts on beluga populations, prompting researchers to conduct a baseline study — examining whale behavior over the last 15 years. Using a dataset spanning 15 years that contained dive information on 30 whales in the area, researchers were able to study migration and feeding patterns of belugas.
Two distinct populations of belugas live in the Bering Sea during the winter months. As sea ice melts and new passages open up, the whales move north to the Beaufort and Chukchi seas where they feed on Arctic cod.
“This study gives us a benchmark of the distribution and foraging patterns for these two beluga populations,” lead author Donna Hauser, a doctoral student in the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, explained in a news release. “However, there still needs to be additional work to see how beluga behavior has changed in concert with changing sea ice conditions in the Arctic.”
The researchers also compared the distribution of Arctic cod to the locations and depths of where beluga whales dove and found that they matched (both between 200 and 300 meters below the surface). This confirmed that Arctic cod are “a significant source of food for belugas” and that they whales will dive deep in order to find them.
“The results of this work can be used not only to understand ecological relationships for Arctic top predators but also inform the management of beluga whales, which are an important subsistence resource for northern communities,” said co-author Kristin Laidre, a UW assistant professor of aquatic and fishery sciences.
To learn more:
- Read the UW news release: Rare beluga data show whales dive to maximize meals
- Read the full study: Regional diving behavior of Pacific Arctic beluga whales Delphinapterus leucas and possible associations with prey
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