Courtship and reproduction are both natural behaviors in the animal kingdom, including humans. When we think of these things in animals, we usually think of large mammals like primates, lions, and bears that all live on land. But what about the aquatic members of the mammal family?
Beluga whales are found only in chilly Arctic and subarctic waters off Alaska, Canada, Russia, Norway, and Greenland. They normally interact in groups, or pods. These pods can change as individual whales move around. Some pods can be made up of whales of the same sex, ages, or reproductive status – for example, mom beluga whales may form a pod with other mom belugas and their calves.
Beluga whales use a variety of behaviors, like complex vocalizations, to keep social order, assert dominance, courtship, or initiate breeding. Outward behaviors may include chasing each other, head bumps, or even biting their intended mate. Whistles, shrills, pulses, and other signals are used for social communication and bonding. If you’ve ever been to Georgia Aquarium’s beluga whale exhibit, you may have heard some of beluga whales’ vocalizations through the acrylic! Unlike penguins, beluga whales are not monogamous and do not pair bond for life.
Beluga whales reproduce seasonally, usually between April and May, but could occur as early as February and as late as June. Most beluga births occur in the late spring to early summer, generally in April through July. But wait, how can breeding and births happen around the same time? That’s because beluga whales have a gestation period of, wait for it – 14-15 months! That takes a lot of patience!
Female beluga whales reach sexual maturity around five to seven years of age, while males take a little longer and reach their maturity around eight to nine years of age. Once they reach maturity, they may not engage in breeding behavior for several years until they reach a size that makes them competitive among other fully-grown males. Female beluga whales give birth to live calves and have one at a time, usually every two to four years.
Beluga calves weigh between 136 and 196 pounds at birth and they are immediately able to swim! Unlike some fish and invertebrate species, beluga moms play a role in caring for their calf and is a large social component of their life. Calves may stay with mom for several years and remain dependent on her, but many stop nursing from mom around two years old. Mom’s milk is rich in nutrients that help calves grow and produce a thick blubber layer to shield them from the cold waters.
Courtship, mating, and reproduction are natural behaviors, for all animals. Those behaviors are different from each species and especially where they live – terrestrial animals who breathe air have different courtship and mating rituals than those that spend their lives underwater!
To learn more about beluga whales, visit our Animal Guide here.