What the Heck is a Beluga Whale? [Mammals, Whales or Dolphins?]

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Beluga whales can also be known as the ‘white whale’ due to their all-white skin color, or the ‘melon head whale’ due to its round bulging head which resembles a melon, or even ‘sea canaries’. But are beluga whales actually whales like their name suggests or are they a dolphin or porpoise?

Beluga whales are a species of whale that live in the arctic tundra. One way beluga whales differ from other species of whales is the fact that they lack a dorsal fin – a fin located on the backs of marine animals – allowing them to swim beneath the ice.

Keep reading to find out what the heck a beluga whale actually is – mammal, whale, dolphin, or porpoise.

What Are Beluga Whales?

The global population of beluga whales is estimated to be approximately 136,000 individuals. Male belugas will grow to be 3.5 to 5.5 meters long, while females grow to be 3 to 4.1 meters long. Due to living in cold arctic waters, beluga whales are extremely slow swimmers1 (source: IUCN).

Beluga whales are highly sociable whales that are observed roaming, foraging, and socializing in pods – often between 2 to 25 individuals – within the arctic ocean. Beluga whales are the only species of whales that can move their heads up and down and from side to side. 

To help beluga whales survive in arctic waters they have developed a thick coating of insulating fat known as blubber. Fat accounts for 40% to 50% of their total weight, which is more than the 30% fat seen in whales that do not live in the arctic2 (source: H.C. Ball, et al., Journal of Comparative Physiology B, Vol. 187, pp. 235–252 2017).


Are Beluga Whales Mammals?

Mammals are a group of warm-blooded, vertebrate animals in which the live young are fed milk produced by the mother’s unique mammary glands. Mammals will use their lungs to breathe and have a layer of fur. For example, humans, dogs, and cats are classed as mammals.

Beluga whales give birth to live young, calves are generally born dark grey. The calves of beluga whales are born swimming and acquire survival skills by watching and imitating their pod’s adults. The lactation period of beluga whales is between 1.5 and 2 years

Beluga whales are mammals. because they are warm-blooded animals with a backbone that give birth to live young. Unlike fish that have gills to breathe, beluga whales must constantly lift their heads out of the water because they breathe with their lungs. Therefore, beluga whales are mammals known as cetaceans3 (source: A.R.Hoelzel, Marine Mammal Biology, 2009) 4(source: D.J.Rugh, et al., Endangered Species Research, Vol. 12, pp. 69–75, 2010).


What Family Does the Beluga Whale Belong To?

Along with the narwhal, the beluga whale belongs to the Monodontidae family. In order to be classified within the Monodontidae family, a whale must lack a true dorsal fin, instead beluga whales have a dorsal ridge and fat pads which are often mistaken for knees. They must also be toothed, beluga whales on average have 34 teeth5 (source: A.Werth and T.J. Ford, Marine Mammal Science, Vol 28, No.4, 2012).

Monodontidae members are endemic to the Arctic Sea’s coastal areas and pack ice, as well as the extreme north of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Both narwhals and beluga whales are highly vocal animals that communicate using a wide range of sounds within their pods. High-pitched, resonant whistles and squeals, clucks, mews, chirps, trills, and bell-like tones are among the 11 various beluga sounds that have been described and recognized by scientists6 (source: R. Mirallesa and G. Lara, The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, Vol. 131, No. 2173, 2012).


Is a Beluga Whale A Dolphin?

No, beluga whales are not dolphins, these are two separate species of marine mammals. Although dolphins are also warm-blooded vertebrates that give birth to live young and have a layer of fur and lungs to breathe, they are members of the Delphinidae family and not the Monodontidae family like beluga whales. This is because dolphins do have a dorsal fin to help them maintain stability in the water.

However, beluga whales and dolphins are closely related. Delphinidae members are also known as toothed whales. Beluga whales and dolphins have similar body shapes but are easily differentiated by their skin color – dolphins are grey.

Dolphins are extremely social animals and will form pods of between 2 and 30 individuals. Similar to beluga whales, dolphins will also use a wide range of sounds within their pods to communicate7 (source: A.R. Hoelzel, Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, Vol. 25, pp 377-399, 1994).


Is a Beluga Whale A Whale?

True to their name, beluga whales are classified as a whale. Whales are mammals with a length of more than 2.7 meters, whereas dolphins and porpoises have a length of less than 2.7 meters.

Most whales have either a small dorsal fin or a dorsal ridge. Beluga whales have a tough dorsal ridge to easily swim under ice as well as having the ability to break thin ice sheets. If they had a dorsal fin living in cold arctic water, they would have more surface area which would increase heat loss8 (source: A.Werth and T.J.Ford, Marine Mammal Science, Vol. 28(4), 2012).

Toothed whales only have one blowhole, unlike ‘true’ whales that have two blowholes. For example, humans have two blowholes – nostrils – that produce a V-shaped blow. Dolphins and porpoises also have one blowhole9 (source: N.I. Mymrin, Arctic, Vol. 52, No. 1, pp. 62-70, 1999).


Is a Beluga Whale A Porpoise?

No, a beluga whale is a whale and not a porpoise. Although the two are similar since a porpoise is also classified as a marine mammal, is a warm-blooded vertebrate that gives birth to live young, and has a layer of fur and lungs to breathe.

However, a porpoise belongs to the Phocoenidae family and not the Monodontidae family like beluga whales. Porpoises are small and they do have a dorsal fin to help them maintain stability in the water. Therefore, beluga whales are not porpoises.

Porpoises share a close resemblance to dolphins. Whilst dolphins, porpoises, and whales are all related, the porpoise is more closely related to the beluga whale despite the difference in appearance. A porpoise is also known as a toothed whale.

A porpoise is the least social animal out of dolphins, porpoises, and whales. They will form a pod consisting of 2 to 20 individuals but they are most commonly found in a pod of only 4. Also, a porpoise will communicate using sounds but are much quieter10 (source: V.G.Waddell, et al., Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, Vol. 15, Issue 2, 2000, pp.314-318).


Related Questions

Is a Beluga Whale a Vertebrate or Invertebrate?

Beluga whales are a vertebrate. This means that beluga whales possess a center backbone and a skeleton. Animals without a backbone are called invertebrates.

However, a beluga whale’s neck vertebrae are not fused together. This is uncommon among cetaceans. As a result, a beluga whale’s neck has more movement and flexibility. The extra movement makes hunting for prey easier11 (source: F.H.Pough, et al., Vertebrate Life, Ed. 9, 2013).

Are Beluga Whales Fish?

No, beluga whales are not fish. In many ways, the beluga whale resembles a fish in terms of shape and visual traits.

But, beluga whales are in fact mammals and have several different characteristics from fish. The main difference is the fact that fish have gills to breathe underwater. Beluga whales have a pair of lungs and have to constantly lift their heads out of the water to breathe12 (source: A.R.Hoelzel, Marine Mammal Biology, 2009).

Why Are Beluga Whales Called Beluga?

The term beluga from the name beluga whale comes from the Russian word “beilo,” which means “white”.

Beluga whales are all white whales and are often referred to as the white whale. Despite the fact that they are born dark-grey. It takes a young beluga whale eight years to turn entirely white13 (source: Online Etymology Dictionary).

Why Are Beluga Whales Known as Sea Canaries?

Beluga whales are also referred to as sea canaries because they frequently produce high-pitched sounds. These sounds are used for communicating within the pods beluga whales create.

There are 11 various beluga sounds that have been described by scientists. Consisting of high-pitched, resonant whistles and squeals, clucks, mews, chirps, trills, and bell-like tones14 (source: E. M. Panova, et al., Oceanology, Vol. 52, pp.79–87, 2012).

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.