As we approach Qinu’s due date, our animal care and veterinary teams work together to monitor the daily well-being of both mom and calf. Nutrition plays a significant role in the overall health and growth of a calf during pregnancy. Georgia Aquarium’s on-site nutritionist and one of the only aquatic nutritionists in the world, Dr. Lisa Hoopes, and Aquarium staff are preparing for the upcoming beluga whale birth. Learn more about the importance of nutrition - and how our teams are preparing:
Q: What needs to be considered when planning the nutrition for a pregnant animal?
Dr. Lisa: Like any pregnant animal, continuing to offer a balanced diet in terms of nutrients, energy, vitamins, and minerals is essential to the health of mom and the development of the calf. One of the biggest changes to Qinu’s diet will occur after her calf is born. We will increase Qinu’s diet to provide her with the calories she needs to produce a high fat milk to nurse the baby, which is typical of this species. Beluga whales can produce milk which is up to 25% fat, compared to cow’s milk which is only 3-4% fat.
Q: How are you preparing for the upcoming birth?
Dr. Lisa: Our preparations began a while ago. We needed to purchase ingredients that we can use to create a milk-substitute for the calf in case Qinu is not producing enough milk or if the calf is unable to nurse successfully. This formula looks just like human baby formula, but the nutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrates) are similar to the composition of what we know beluga milk is comprised of. Our commissary and husbandry staff are trained on making the formula should there be a need for it.
Q: What is the nursing process for beluga whales?
Dr. Lisa: Similar to humans, there will be a learning process for the calf to begin nursing from Qinu. We will keep monitoring mom and calf to ensure the baby receives milk from her. Calves are able to curl their tongues (just like us!), which can act like a straw during nursing. The first milk that comes through after the birth is the colostrum, and it contains the antibodies and immunoglobulins that help protect newborns by priming their immune system. The antibodies and immunoglobulins are natural proteins found in the milk that will help strengthen the calf’s immune system against pathogens and viruses.
Belugas live in cold Arctic waters, but migrate to warmer waters to give birth. This is because the calf is born without that layer of fat called blubber to keep them warm. The calf develops a blubber layer through the high fat milk from mom. Calves are dependent on mother’s milk for 6-12 months before they begin to eat solid food, but can continue to nurse opportunistically until they are two years old.
Q: Why is nutrition important throughout pregnancy and for the calf?
Dr. Lisa: It’s essential to monitor the nutrition of both mother and calf, as it’s an important part of preventative medicine and health. Every mother and calf is different, and their nutritional needs will be monitored and assessed daily. Initially, the calf may need to be fed every three hours, and that means the nutritional needs of the calf could change within the course of a day. Myself, along with our veterinary and husbandry teams, will be monitoring the needs of both Qinu and her calf in order to provide the best care possible.
Q: What can experts learn from a pregnant beluga whale at an aquarium?
Dr. Lisa: It’s important to learn more about these animals at all stages of their lives to better understand them and their wild counterparts. For example, we work together with partner institutions like Shedd Aquarium, SeaWorld, and Vancouver Aquarium, to learn more about the nutritional needs of adult beluga whale and calves. After Qinu gives birth, we will collect and test milk samples to learn more about milk composition - protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals- and how energy content, or calories, change throughout nursing. It’s important for zoos and aquariums to work together to research and help conserve all species, and nutrition is an important aspect of that.