SEATTLE, WA. – Researchers at the University of Washington discovered previously unknown hunting patterns of beluga whales. Two populations dive upward of 900 meters to get as much Artic cod as possible during hunts, according to a study recently published in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series.

Advanced tagging technology has allowed scientists to track the foraging patterns of the marine mammals up close for the first time. They gathered and examined data of 30 belugas in the Artic in the general vicinity of Alaska over the last 15 years and found that both beluga populations spend the winter in the Bering Sea and then travel north into the Chukchi and Beaufort seas as the ice begins to break in the summer.

Head of a beluga showing the large frontal prominence that houses the melon and its distinctive white colouring. Credit: Wikipedia

Once they arrive in their summer habitat, belugas dive as far as half a mile under water looking for their staple foods, but during most dives they only cruise to one-third of that distance. The paper states that the distinct mammals searched for food not only deep along the seafloor, but also along sloping grounds.

Lead author Donna Hauser, a doctoral student in the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, said in a press release that the study served as a guide mark of the foraging patterns and distribution for both beluga populations.

Still, she added that further research is needed to see how the species have changed its behavior while facing changing sea conditions in the Artic caused by climate change.

It is relatively little what scientists know about beluga whales because these marine mammals live in some of the most remote, cold waters of Earth. They spend most of their time out of reach in harsh Artic environments but advanced technology allowed scientists to tag them while traveling close to shore in the early summer.

The tags were designed to remain on the belugas for up to 18 months and turned on when they surfaced to breathe, transmitting depth and location measurements to a satellite.

“The results of this work can be used not only to understand ecological relationships for Arctic top predators but also inform the management of beluga whales, which are an important subsistence resource for northern communities,” co-author Kristin Laidre, a UW assistant professor of aquatic and fishery sciences, said in the university’s release.

Source: Tech Times