Are Beluga Whales Dolphins?

Sure, beluga whales are called whales, but they do look very different from blue whales, sperm whales, or even orcas. They are smaller, are quite chatty and social, all of which tend to remind aquarium visitors of another marine mammal. Are beluga whales dolphins? 

Are Beluga Whales Dolphins?

Beluga Whales are not dolphins. Beluga whales belong to the family of Monodontidae, which includes only two living species, beluga whales and narwhals, which both are, true to their names, whales. Monodontidae, though, belongs to a so-called superfamily, the Delphinoidea, which includes oceanic dolphins and porpoises. 

To make matters even more complicated, both beluga whales and dolphins also belong to the parvorder – that is a classification even higher than superfamily – of the Odontoceti, which can be translated to “toothed whales.”

As the name says, this parvorder incorporates whales with teeth, like also beaked whales and sperm whales.

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Are Beluga Whales Dolphins?
Are Beluga Whales Dolphins?

Whales and dolphins are thus closely related, but the name dolphin usually refers to the smaller species of the Cetacean order. 

Despite their close relation, there are significant anatomical differences between dolphins and beluga whales. A difference in the skeletal structure is that the vertebrae in a beluga whale’s neck are not fused together, as is the case with dolphins and most other whales, and they are therefore able to turn their head up and down and from side to side.

Beluga whales are also quite extraordinary in their ability to actually change their facial expressions and round their lips when making sounds. In contrast, a dolphin’s face is perpetually frozen in a grin.

Most notable about the appearance of beluga whales is probably the bulb on their forehead, called a “melon.” They can change their shape by blowing air around their sinuses.

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Lastly, dolphins have dorsal fins, while belugas, as well as other arctic whales, do not. A dorsal fin would add to the body’s surface area and thus lead to a loss of body heat in the cold climates they inhabit.

They would not be able to swim closely under ice, either. Instead, beluga whales have a hard dorsal ridge on their back which they use to break open ice. 

Beluga Whale vs Dolphin
Beluga Whale vs. Dolphin

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Do Beluga Whales Use Echolocation? 

Beluga whales use echolocation. They make quick chirping and clicking noises that bounce back from objects in their environment. Impressively, beluga whales are able to produce these sounds without even having vocal cords. They communicate through their nasal sack close to their blowholes.

Since they live in dark waters under ice sheets, they are completely reliant on finding their ways with echolocation. Aside from that, they also communicate with each other almost constantly. They have been nicknamed the “canaries of the sea” due to their constant whistling and chirping. 

Do Beluga Whales Eat Penguins? 

Finding out that orcas, tellingly nicknamed killer whales, joyfully kill and eat penguins has been an unwelcome realization for many avid watchers of nature documentaries.

As much as we all know that the interplay between predators and prey is a normal part of nature, most people somehow struggle to accept these adorable little flightless birds being devoured by a killer. 

Luckily for fans of penguins, orcas are the only species of whale that incorporates penguins into their diet! Beluga whales only eat smaller marine animals like crustaceans, fish, and worms. 

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Why Are Beluga Whales White? 

With their unusual color, beluga whales are easily identified. Their name even comes from the Russian word for white. This color makes them very well adapted to their habitat among ice and snow. Beluga whales are born in darker shades of grey or brown, but they get brighter as they age.

Sometimes their skin takes on a yellow tint from algae growing on top of them. Beluga whales molt each summer, a habit that is very unusual for whales. This means that they shed the outer layer of their skin; they often rub at rocks and boulders to help the skin get off.

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While most whales, dolphins, and porpoises shed their skin continuously, day by day – just like humans who continuously lose dry skin cells – so far, only beluga whales and narwhals are known to do all their exfoliating in one go, during the summer when they move to warmer waters. 


Are Beluga Whales Endangered?

Beluga whales are endangered animals, and they are all protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Cook Inlet beluga whale population is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Beluga whales are vulnerable to pollution, habitat degradation, harassment, interactions with commercial and recreational fisheries, oil and gas exploration. They have been hunted for centuries for their meat, blubber, and skin. Beluga whales also depend on sea ice to survive and are impacted by climate change.

Do People Eat Beluga Whales?

In general, only Alaska Natives Groups and some Inuits in Canada and Greenland can eat beluga whales except for the Cook Inlet beluga whale, which is illegal to eat. Parts that are consumed the most are the skin, meat, and blubber, known as muktuk, and they are eaten raw or cooked. The meat is usually stored and eaten throughout the winter.