Are Beluga Whales Carnivores? What Do They Eat?

Are Beluga Whales Carnivores? What Do They Eat?

All species of whales are considered to be carnivores, this means that they will feed on other animals. However, beluga whales live in the arctic tundra where food availability is extremely low. Does this change their diet?

A beluga whale’s diet consists of mostly fish but they have also been known to feed on small invertebrates such as crabs, squid, and cuttlefish. They are opportunistic feeders which means that they will feed on anything that is available to them at the time of their hunt.

Keep reading to find out more about the diet of beluga whales, how they hunt for their food and how they eat.

Are Beluga Whales Carnivores?

Beluga whales are carnivorous animals because they will feed on fish and even small invertebrates.

Their carnivorous nature is reflected in 34 to 40 sharp teeth that are all similar in shape and form. These teeth are not actually used for chewing, but instead, they are utilized to grip prey to stop them from escaping before devouring it whole1 (source: A Mukherjee & P.K. Mukherjee, Science Reporter, pp38-39, 2018).

They will only have one set of teeth for their whole life, meaning that the teeth become worn down as they get older.

During the winter months, beluga whales will spend the most time foraging for food in order to gain more blubber. Blubber is a layer of fat under the skin that will keep the beluga whale warmer2 (source: M. Fournier, et al., Toxicology Letters, Vol 112–113, pp.311-317, 2000).


What Do Beluga Whales Eat?

The diet of beluga whales changes with their location in the Northern Hemisphere and the seasons – spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Scientists are able to know their diet by carrying out stomach content analysis.

1. Fish

Beluga whales will eat over 100 different species of fish as their main food source. The species of fish will depend on where the beluga whale is hunting.

In the Bering Sea, arctic cod has been found to be the most abundant fish species in the stomach of beluga whales. Whereas, Alaskan beluga populations relied heavily on Pacific salmon as a food source.

Tomcod, herring, capelin, salmon, and smelt, have also been identified as common fish species found in the stomach of beluga whales3 (source: N.I. Mymrin, et al., Arctic, Vol. 52, No. 1, pp. 62-70, 1999).

2. Crustaceans

Crustaceans are a group that contains animals such as crabs, shrimp, lobsters, crayfish, shrimp, and krill.

Beluga whales differ from humpback whales and blue whales which will feed solely on crustaceans. Although small crustaceans are still a large part of a beluga whales’ diet, they are less dominant.

Greenlandic beluga whales in particular will rely heavily on shrimp as their main food source. A possible reason for this is because shoals of fish become less common in the Northmost areas, unlike shrimps4 (source: L.L.Loseto, et al., Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, Vol. 374, Issue 1, pp. 12-18, 2009).

3. Cephalopods

Beluga whales are known to feed on small cephalopods like squid and octopuses.

However, the reliance on cephalopods is still uncertain by scientists. A beak can remain in a beluga whales’ stomach for much longer than fish and crustaceans and they can collect through several feeding. This leads to an overestimation5 (source: L.T. Quakenbush, Marine Fisheries Review, Vol. 77, No. 1, pp. 70-84, 2015).


How Much Do Beluga Whales Eat?

A typical adult beluga whale will eat about 60 Ibs (27 kg) of food per day, which is 3% of their body weight. This is the equivalent roughly to 5 north Atlantic salmon which typically weigh 12 Ibs on average.

During the winter months when they are trying to gain more blubber a large male adult beluga whale can eat up to 100 Ibs (45 kg) a day6(source: A Mukherjee & P.K. Mukherjee, Science Reporter, pp38-39, 2018).


How Do Beluga Whales Hunt?

Beluga whales will hunt in pods of five or more in order to herd their prey into tight balls where they can isolate and attack it. When seeking for food, they are able to dive to depths of up to 2,300 feet. Foraging for food is at the bottom of the seabed is the most common hunting method7 (source: J.J. Citta, et al., Arctic, Vol. 66, No. 4, pp. 389-406, 2013).

The most noticeable feature of a beluga whales are their melon heads, used for echolocation. The melon contains oil and wax which is why their heads are big and squishy8 (source: T. A. Mooney, et al., Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, Vol. 362, Issue 2, pp. 108-116, 2008).

Echolocation is the ability to examine surroundings by projecting a sound and listening to its echoes. Beluga whales can direct sound by wiggling their head and changing the form of their melon.


How Do Beluga Whales Eat?

When beluga whales come across a possible food source, they will begin suctioning it into their mouth for it to be swallowed whole. Despite having teeth they will not chew their food.

As beluga whales swallow food whole there is a high risk that they may choke if they suction an animal that is too big into their mouth.

Beluga whales will spit water at the sand in order to dislodge crabs and other crustaceans for a quick meal9 (source: N.I. Mymrin, et al., Arctic, Vol. 52, No. 1, pp. 62-70, 1999).


Related Questions

Do Beluga Whales Eat Humans?

No, beluga whales will not attack and eat humans. They tend to be very gentle characters and often friendly towards humans. The majority of their diet consists of fish, crustaceans and cephalopods.

However, if people provoke the beluga whales, they may attack humans. They are capable of injuring humans, yet it will rarely eats them10 (source: M. Tyrrell, Human Ecology, Vol. 35, pp. 575–586, 2007).

Do Beluga Whales Eat Penguins?

No, beluga whales will not attack and eat penguins if they ever come across one. This is due to the fact that beluga whales live in the northern hemisphere while penguins live in the southern hemisphere.

Beluga whales will only consume small marine organisms because they swallow their food whole. This is unlike orcas which are the only species of whale that will eat penguins11 (source: P.T. Fretwell and P.N. Trathan, Global Ecology and Biogeography, Vol. 18, Issue 5, pp. 543-552, 2009).

Do Beluga Whales Eat Seals?

No, beluga whales will not attack and eat seals. Beluga whales are slow swimmers (9 km/h) and would not be fast enough to catch a seal (35 km/h average speed).

The main way a beluga whale will hunt for food is by foraging along the seabed, this is not a suitable habitat for seals12 (source: S.L. Gallon, et al., Journal of Experimental Biology, Vol. 210, Issue 18, pp. 3285–3294, 2007).

Do Beluga Whales Eat Birds?

No, beluga whales will not attack and eat birds. Although beluga whales are often found at the surface underneath the ice, this is not to feed, but instead to hide from predators.

The chosen location for beluga whales to feed is along the seabed. Therefore, beluga whales are not a threat to birds13 (source: N.I. Mymrin, et al., Arctic, Vol. 52, No. 1, pp. 62-70, 1999).

Do Beluga Whales Eat Fish?

Yes, beluga whales will eat fish. Beluga whales have been found will feed on over 100 different species of fish. They are opportunistic feeder which means they will eat anything small that is available to them.

Some species of fish that have been found in a beluga whales stomach include the arctic cod, salmon, smelt, tomcod, capelin, and herring14(source: N.I. Mymrin, et al., Arctic, Vol. 52, No. 1, pp. 62-70, 1999).

Do Beluga Whales Eat Polar Bears?

No, beluga whales will not attack and eat polar bears. In fact during the winter months polar bears will often attack and eat adult beluga whales.

When beluga whales come to a hole in the ice to breathe, polar bears in search of food will use their power to lift them onto the ice surface and eat them15 (source: D.J.Rugh and K.E.W. Sheldon, Canadian Field Naturalist, Vol. 107, Issue 2, p.235, 1993).

Do Beluga Whales Eat Krill?

Yes, beluga whale will eat krill. Krill is classified as a crustacean. However, they do not rely on krill as much as other whale species, such as the blue whale.

Due to the small size of krill and they are found along the seabed they are the ideal food for a beluga whale. Krill are often caught in the suction a beluga whale produces in order to gather food16 (source: L.L.Loseto, et al., Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, Vol. 374, Issue 1, pp. 12-18, 2009).

Do Beluga Whales Eat Plankton?

No, beluga whales will not typically feed on plankton. Plankton are small, microscopic organisms that drift or float in the sea. They are not a suitable food source for a large beluga whales for this reason.

Instead beluga whales find themselves feeding on small fish, crustaceans and cephalopods found along the seabed17 (source: L.L.Loseto, et al., Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, Vol. 374, Issue 1, pp. 12-18, 2009).

Elizabeth Bayliss

Elizabeth is a final year BSc Marine Biology student at Bangor University. The focus of her studies is on extreme marine habitats, specifically the polar regions and all animals that reside there. She's an expert at examining peer-reviewed literature and loves to share her findings to inspire others.