Beluga whales form extensive social networks

Beluga whales form extensive social networks

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Not only do beluga whales regularly interact with close kin, but they also frequently associate with more distantly related and unrelated individuals, a new study finds.

Pod of belugas playing in the cool productive waters of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago and Franz Josef Land, Russia

Belugas are gregarious, highly sociable and they regularly form small groups, or pods, which may contain between two and 25 individuals, with an average of 10 members.

Pods tend to be unstable, meaning individuals tend to move from pod to pod. Their behaviour, which includes sophisticated vocal repertoires, suggest that this marine mammal lives in complex societies. It has long been thought belugas formed social bonds around females that primarily comprise closely related individuals from the same maternal lineage, but this hypothesis has never been documented.

A new study, led by Florida Atlantic University’s Harbour Branch Oceanographic Institute came up with several unexpected findings.

Belugas likely form multi-scale societies from mother-calf dyads to entire communities. Beluga whales exhibit a wide range of grouping patterns from small groups of two to 10 individuals to large herds of 2,000 or more, from apparently single-sex and age-class pods to mixed-age and sex groupings, and from brief associations to multiyear affiliations.

Given their long life span of approximately 70 years and a tendency to remain within their natal community, these findings reveal that beluga whales may form long-term affiliations with unrelated as well as related individuals.

From these perspectives, beluga communities have similarities to human societies where social networks, support structures, cooperation and cultures involve interactions between kin and non-kin.

A bit like people

Unlike killer and pilot whales, and like some human societies, beluga whales do not solely or even primarily interact and associate with close kin, explains Greg O’Corry-Crowe, Ph.D., lead author of the study.  Source: Harbour Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University

Harbour Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University