Belugas Blow Bubbles to Express Their Mood

December 11, 2015 | Joanne Kennell

Beluga whale with its head above the water
Photo credit: tiffany terry/flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Here's how to tell if a Beluga whale likes you.

Beluga whales have pure white skin, a five-inch thick layer of blubber and a tough dorsal ridge, which allows them to swim in the freezing cold waters of the Arctic and Subarctic.  They also have a distinctively large forehead.

But, a question has puzzled scientists for years, “Why do Beluga whales blow bubbles so often underwater?”  It seems counterintuitive since they need to maintain a certain amount of oxygen in their blood while below the surface.

A new study conducted by Michael Noonan, a Canisius College Professor of Animal Behaviour, decided to figure this out.  He conducted an eight-year study at Marineland Canada in Niagara Falls, Ontario by examining more than 11,000 bubbling events recorded from 5,000 minutes of observation.

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"Underwater bubbling is a fairly common behavior in Beluga whales," explained Noonan.  "It's an enigmatic and delightful behavior but also a very complex behavior."

It turns out that Beluga whales blow a lot of bubbles — an average of 58 bubbles per minute, with 90 percent of all bubbles originating from the blowhole.  The remaining 10 percent are released through their mouths.

The study found that nearly all Beluga bubbles fall into one of four shapes: blowhole drips, blowhole bursts, blowhole streams, and mouth rings.  Male and female Belugas, both children and adults, all produced these bubbles — and researchers believe that each bubble type represents a Belugas mood.

When Belugas were being playful, they produced blowhole drips and mouth rings.  According to the study, these two types of bubbles are displayed more often by females than males, “which suggests that Beluga females are more playful in nature than their male counterparts,” said Elizabeth George, a member of the Canisius research team.

Blowhole bursts were created when a Beluga was startled.  Bursts were also produced more commonly by females, “which suggests that adult females are more reactive by nature than adult males,” says Noonan.  However, these bursts were produced at a higher frequency by young males suggesting that juvenile male Belugas are naturally rowdier when they are playing amongst each other

Blowhole streams are considered a form of aggression in humpback whales, however Noonan’s study revealed that may not be the case for Beluga whales.  Although streams were produced more often by adult and young Beluga males — suggesting streams may in fact indicate a form of aggression — there was almost no aggression observed during the eight-year study.  The team believes that the streams may be displayed during a good-natured competition or to indicate friendship.

Oddly, there were days where Belugas blew a lot of bubbles, and days where they did not blow any at all.  “In working with these animals, we definitely found that there were 'bubble days' and non-bubble days,” said Noonan.  It is possible, Noonan explained, that blowing bubbles may be influenced by the weather or other environmental variables, however, since the pool conditions at Marineland throughout the study remained reasonably stable, a social explanation for these bubble and non-bubble days is also possible.

"A contagious effect, in which the bubbling of one Beluga stimulates or at least facilitates a similar bubble release by another whale, could explain the occurrence of extremely high bubble days at frequencies greater than that predicted by chance," said Noonan.

One of the most charming features of Belugas is that they blow so many bubbles, and now we may know why.

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