Beluga Bits

Brief Project Information
Examine underwater photos of wild beluga whales and help us identify the age, sex, and group size. We also need keen eye to look for identifying marks to recognize beluga that return to this location year after year.


Published in 2016
More information about the project

According to the webpage at "So much we don't know Hudson Bay is home to more than 50 thousand beluga during the summer! Along the western side of Hudson Bay, there are 3 major river estuaries where beluga gather in the thousands every summer. They spend the winter in waters that are covered in ice and are hundreds of kilometres to the north. When the sea ice melts in the spring each year beluga travel to estuaries but it is not fully clear what benefits they gain in these areas. The estuaries may provide a safe refuge from killer whales, they may provide warmer water to help molt their skin, or it may be a combination of these and other factors. One thing we do know is that in the Churchill River Estuary beluga whales are close enough to peek into their underwater world and ask questions about beluga social structure, interactions with small boats, and their natural history. How we get beluga photographs Here are our major research themes that you will be helping us with 1. Social Structure Are the same groups of animals always seen together? Using the age and sex results we hope to answer this. We predict that we will only see calves with groups of females but we are also interested in related questions like if only adult males form groups or do male groups include all age classes? Are the same individuals always seen together? Using the data on marked individuals we hope to answer this and build a picture of which animals are socially connected to which other animals. For example, if we see a marked calf with a female in one year then see it again in subsequent years, it could indicate a matrilineal pod structure (females are the core of a group), which is seen in many whale species. 2. Life History How often do females have calves? Although examination of the reproductive tracts of beluga whales suggests that females will have a calf every two to three years on average, there some uncertainty in this estimate. Using the data on marked females with calves we hope to understand the calving rate better and that will help to estimate the population growth rate. What sort of threats face beluga whales? The types of scars on whales can be very informative. For example, in bowhead whales, researchers have documented increases in predation by killer whales from rake marks. How strong is the urge to return to this estuary (site fidelity) We think that beluga return to the same estuary each year and because of this we might be able to manage the population based on these Estuaries. However, it is difficult to figure this out. One way is to put satellite transmitters on beluga and track where they are going but so far no transmitter has lasted an entire year. We hope that by identifying marked individuals year after year we can figure this question out. 3. Habitat Use Do belugas of a certain age or sex tend to use the same underwater habitat? When the beluga boat is driving around the estuary it is also collecting GPS locations of its position. We will then link the classified photos to a location in the river. This will allow us to look at questions related to habitat use like do beluga tend to be found at a certain water depth maybe just in areas with a particular bottom (sand, gravel, boulders). 4. What Else? The great thing with these underwater photos is that they provide us with a glimpse into an estuary ecosystem. This means that we come across other organisms that live in these areas such as jellyfish while searching for beluga whales. There are so many ways to understand the health of water, ocean, and marine ecosystems, and monitoring populations of creatures like jellyfish is one way to do this."
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