Synergy between behavioural research on beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) conducted in zoological and wild settings

  • Heather M. Manitzas Hill Psychology Department, St. Mary’s University, San Antonio, TX, USA
  • Deirdre B. Yeater Psychology Department, Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, CT, USA
  • Michael Noonan Biology Department, Canisius College, Buffalo, NY, USA
Keywords: Animal cognition, aquariums, captive whales, socio-sexual interactions, maternal behaviour, play


Behavioural observations of captive beluga whales have complemented and extended much of what has been learnt about this species in the wild. Aquarium-based research has provided finer-scale specificity for many topics, including the seasonal breeding pattern that is characteristic of this species, as well as socio-sexual behaviour that appears to be an important part of the behavioural repertoire of this species. One example is a strong propensity for male–male social interactions that begin to develop at an early age. In addition, detailed behavioural milestones in calves have been documented in ways that extend that which have been collected from wild populations. These include swim positions with mother, separations/reunions with mother, and other social interactions, and play. Characteristics of beluga maternal care have also been studied more often in captive settings than in the wild, particularly with respect to details pertaining to nursing behaviour, individual differences in maternal style and allomaternal care. Other topics that have received scientific scrutiny in zoological settings include individual differences and behavioural laterality. Thus, a greater understanding of beluga behavioural biology has the potential to emerge as a consequence of synergy between research conducted in the two settings.


Download data is not yet available.


Abramson J.Z., Hernández-Lloreda V., Call J. & Colmenares F. 2013. Relative quantity judgments in the beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) and the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus). Behavioural Processes 96, 11–19, doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2013.02.006.

Alekseeva Y.I., Panova E.M. & Bel’kovich V.M. 2013. Behavioral and acoustical characteristics of the reproductive gathering of beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) in the vicinity of Myagostrov, Golyi Sosnovets, and Roganka Islands (Onega Bay, the White Sea). Biology Bulletin 40, 307–317, doi: 10.1134/S1062359013030023.

Ames A.E. & Vergara V. 2020. Trajectories of vocal repertoire development in beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) calves: insights from studies a decade apart. Aquatic Mammals 46, 344–366, doi: 10.1578/AM.46.4.2020.344.

Bailey N.W. & Zuk M. 2009. Same-sex sexual behavior and evolution. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24, 439–446, doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2009.03.014.

Baillargeon R., Scott R.M., He Z., Sloane S., Setoh P., Jin K.-S., Wu D. & Bian L. 2015. Psychological and sociomoral reasoning in infancy. In M. Mikulinceret al. (eds.): APA handbook of personality and social psychology. Vol. 1. Attitudes and social cognition. Pp. 79–150. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Boltunov A.N. & Belikov S.E. 2002. Belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) of the Barents, Kara and Laptev seas. NAMMCO Scientific Publications 4, 149–168, doi: 10.7557/3.2842.

Brodie P.F. 1971. A reconsideration of aspects of growth, reproduction, and behavior of the white whale (Delphinapterus leucas), with reference to the Cumberland Sound, Baffin Island, population. Journal of the Fisheries Board of Canada 28, 1309–1318, doi: 10.1139/f71-198.

Brown B. 2018. Exploring temperament in beluga whale calves (Delphinapterus leucas). PhD thesis, University of Southern Mississippi.

Chernetsky A.D., Krasnova V.V. & Bel’kovich V.M. 2011. Studies of the structure of the Solovetsky reproductive gathering of beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) in the White Sea using the photo identification method. Oceanology 51, 275–280, doi: 10.1134/S0001437011020044.

Colbeck G.J., Duchesne P., Postma L.D., Lesage V., Hammill M.O. & Turgeon J. 2013. Groups of related belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) travel together during their seasonal migrations in and around Hudson Bay. Proceedings of the Royal Society Biology 280, 2552–2561, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.2552.

Connor R.C. & Krützen M. 2015. Male dolphin alliances in Shark Bay: changing perspectives in a 30-year study. Animal Behaviour 103, 223–235, doi: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2015.02.019.

DiPaola S., Akai C. & Kraus B. 2007. Experiencing belugas: action selection for an interactive aquarium exhibit. Adaptive Behavior 15, 99–113, doi: 10.1177/1059712306076251.

Dudzinski K., Gregg J., Paulos R.D. & Kuczaj S.A. 2010. A comparison of pectoral fin contact for three distinct dolphin populations. Behavioural Processes 84, 559–567, doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2010.02.013.

Dudzinski K., Gregg J., Ribic C. & Kuczaj S. 2009. A comparison of pectoral fin contact between two different wild dolphin populations. Behavioural Processes 80, 182–190, doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2008.11.011.

Dudzinski K.M. & Ribic C.A. 2017. Pectoral fin contact as a mechanism for social bonding among dolphins. Animal Behavior and Cognition 4, 30–48, doi: 10.12966/abc.03.02.2017.

Frick E.E., de Vere A.J. & Kuczaj S.A. 2017. What do we want to know about personality in marine mammals? In J. Vonket al. (eds.): Personality in nonhuman animals. Pp. 237–253. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Furuichi T., Connor R. & Hashimoto C. 2014. Non-conceptive sexual interactions in monkeys, apes, and dolphins. In J. Yamagiwa & L. Karczmarski (eds.): Primates and cetaceans. Pp. 385–408. Tokyo: Springer.

Glabicky N., DuBrava A. & Noonan M. 2010. Social–sexual behavior seasonality in captive beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas). Polar Biology 33, 1145–1147, doi: 10.1007/s00300-010-0790-3.

Godde S., Humbert L., Côté S.D., Réale D. & Whitehead H. 2013. Correcting for the impact of gregariousness in social network analyses. Animal Behaviour 85, 553–558, doi: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2012.12.010.

Goertz C.E., Burek-Huntington K., Royer K., Quakenbush L., Clauss T., Hobbs R. & Kellar N. M. 2019. Comparing progesterone in blubber and serum to assess pregnancy in wild beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas). Conservation Physiology 7, article no. coz071, doi: 10.1093/conphys/coz071.

Guarino S., Yeater D., Lacy S., Dees T. & Hill H. 2017. Responses to familiar and unfamiliar objects by belugas (Delphinapterus leucas), bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), and Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens). Animal Cognition 20, 823–827, doi: 10.1007/s10071-017-1103-9.

Ham J.R., Lilley M.K. & Manitzas Hill H.M. 2021. Seasonality of social behaviour among immature belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) in managed care. Polar Research 40, article no. 5498, doi: 10.33265/polar.v40.5498

Heide-Jørgensen M.P. & Teilmann J. 1994. Growth, reproduction, age structure and feeding habits of white whales (Delphinapterus leucas) in west Greenland waters. Meddelelser om Grønland Bioscience 39, 195–212.

Highfill L.E. & Kuczaj S.A. 2007. Do bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) have distinct and stable personalities? Aquatic Mammals 33, 380–389, doi: 10.1578/AM.33.3.2007.387.

Highfill L.E. & Kuczaj S.A. 2010. How studies of wild and captive dolphins contribute to our understanding of individual differences and personality. International Journal of Comparative Psychology 23, 269–277.

Hill H. 2009. The behavioral development of two beluga calves during the first year of life. International Journal of Comparative Psychology 22, 234–253.

Hill H., Alvarez C., Dietrich S. & Lacy K. 2016. Preliminary findings in beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) tactile interactions. Aquatic Mammals 42, 277–291, doi: 10.1578/AM.42.3.2016.277.

Hill H. & Campbell C. 2014. Allocare depends on social composition for belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) in human care. International Journal of Comparative Psychology 27, 501–514, doi: 10.46867/ijcp.2014.27.04.08.

Hill H., Campbell C., Dalton L. & Osborn S. 2013. The first year of behavioral development and maternal care of beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) calves in human care. Zoo Biology 32, 565–570, doi: 10.1002/zoo.21093.

Hill H., Dietrich S., Finn R., Garza S., Alvarez C., Lacy K. & Kuczaj S. 2018. Role of contact in beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) calf relationships. Aquatic Mammals 44, 62–75, doi: 10.1578/AM.44.1.2018.62.

Hill H., Dietrich S., Yeater D., McKinnon M., Miller M., Aibel S. & Dove A. 2015. Developing a catalog of sexual and socio-sexual behaviors of beluga whales in the care of humans. Animal Behavior and Cognition 2, 105–123, doi: 10.12966/abc.05.01.2015.

Hill H., Guarino S., Crandall S., Lenhart E. & Dietrich S. 2015. Young belugas diversify adult beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) behavior. Animal Behavior and Cognition 2, 267–284, doi: 10.12966/abc.08.06.2015.

Hill H. & Ramirez D. 2014. Adults play but not like their young: the frequency and types of play by belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) in human care. Animal Behavior and Cognition 1, 166–185, doi: 10.12966/abc.05.07.2014.

Hill H.M., Dietrich S. & Cappiello B. 2017. Learning to play: a review and theoretical investigation of the developmental mechanisms and functions of cetacean play. Learning & Behavior 45, 335–354, doi: 10.3758/s13420-017-0291-0.

Hill H.M., Dietrich S., Guarino S., Banda M. & Lacy K. 2019. Preliminary observations of an unusual mouth interaction between beluga calves (Delphinapterus leucas). Zoo Biology 38, 149–156, doi: 10.1002/zoo.21463.

Hill H.M., Garcia de Oliveira Silva-Gruber D. & Noonan M. 2018. Sex-specific social affiliation in captive beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas). Aquatic Mammals 44, 250–255, doi: 10.1578/AM.44.3.2018.250.

Hill H.M., Guarino S., Calvillo A., Gonzalez A., Zuniga K., Bellows C., Polasek L. & Sims C. 2017. Lateralized swim positions are conserved across environments for beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) mother–calf pairs. Behavioural Processes 138, 22–28, doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2017.01.018.

Hill H.M., Woodruff M.J. & Noonan M. 2019. Individual differences in the behavioral characteristics of beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas). Behavioural Processes 166, article no. 103885, doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2019.06.008.

Hill H.M., Yeater D., Gallup S., Guarino S., Lacy S., Dees T. & Kuczaj S. 2016. Responses to familiar and unfamiliar humans by belugas (Delphinapterus leucas), bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), & Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens): a replication and extension. International Journal of Comparative Psychology 29, article no. 32012.

Horback K.M., Friedman W.R. & Johnson C.M. 2010. The occurrence and context of s-posture display by captive belugas (Delphinapterus leucas). International Journal of Comparative Psychology 23, 689–700.

Huntington H.P. 2005. “We dance around in a ring and suppose”: academic engagement with traditional knowledge. Arctic Anthropology 42, 29–32, doi: 10.1353/arc.2011.0101.

Huntington H.P. & Communities of Buckland, Elim, Koyuk, Point Lay and Shaktoolik 1999. Traditional knowledge of the ecology of beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) in the eastern Chukchi and northern Bering seas, Alaska. Arctic 52, 49–61, doi: 10.14430/arctic909.

Jones B.L. & Kuczaj S.A. 2014. Beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) novel bubble helix play behavior. Animal Behavior and Cognition 1, 206–214, doi: 10.12966/abc.05.10.2014.

Karenina K., Giljov A., Baranov V., Osipova L., Krasnova V. & Malashichev Y. 2010. Visual laterality of calf–mother interactions in wild whales. PLoS One 5, e13787, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0013787.

Karenina K., Giljov A., Glazov D. & Malashichev Y. 2013. Social laterality in wild beluga whale infants: comparisons between locations, escort conditions, and ages. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 67, 1195–1204, doi: 10.1007/s00265-013-1545-2.

Krasnova V., Belkovich V. & Chernetsky A. 2003. Dynamics of belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) behavior in reproduction gathering. In P.G.H. Evanset al. (eds.): Proceedings of the Seventeenth Annual Conference of the European Cetacean society, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, Spain, 9–13 March 2002. Pp. 130–139. European Cetacean Society.

Krasnova V.V., Bel’kovich V.M. & Chernetsky A.D. 2006. Mother–infant spatial relations in wild beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) during postnatal development under natural conditions. Biology Bulletin 33, 53–58, doi: 10.1134/S1062359006010079.

Krasnova V.V., Bel’kovich V.M. & Chernetsky A.D. 2009. Formation of behavior in the White Sea beluga calf, Delphinapterus leucas, during early postnatal ontogenesis. Russian Journal of Marine Biology 35, 53–59, doi: 10.1134/S1063074009010088.

Krasnova V.V., Chernetsky A.D., Kirillova O.I. & Bel’kovich V.M. 2012. The dynamics of the abundance, age, and sex structure of the Solovetsky reproductive gathering of the beluga whale Delphinapterus leucas (Onega Bay, White Sea). Russian Journal of Marine Biology 38, 218–225, doi: 10.1134/S1063074012030078.

Krasnova V.V., Chernetsky A.D., Zheludkova A.I. & Bel’kovich V.M. 2014. Parental behavior of the beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) in natural environment. Biology Bulletin 41, 349–356, doi: 10.1134/S1062359014040062.

Kuczaj S.A., Makecha R., Trone M., Paulos R.D. & Ramos J.A. 2006. Role of peers in cultural innovation and cultural transmission: evidence from the play of dolphin calves. International Journal of Comparative Psychology 19, 223–240.

Leung E.S., Vergara V. & Barrett‐Lennard L.G. 2010. Allonursing in captive belugas (Delphinapterus leucas). Zoo Biology 29, 633–637, doi: 10.1002/zoo.20295.

Lilley M.K., Ham J.R. & Hill H.M. 2020. The development of socio-sexual behavior in belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) under human care. Behavioural Processes 171, article no. 104025, doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2019.104025.

Lomac-MacNair K.S., Smultea M.A., Cotter, M.P., Thissen C. & Parker L. 2015. Socio-sexual and probable mating behavior of Cook Inlet beluga whales, Delphinapterus leucas, observed from an aircraft. Marine Fisheries Review 77, 32–39, doi: 10.7755/MFR.77.2.2.

Loseto L.L., Richard P., Stern G.A., Orr J. & Ferguson S.H. 2006. Segregation of Beaufort Sea beluga whales during the open-water season. Canadian Journal of Zoology 84, 1743–1751, doi: 10.1139/z06-160.

Mann J. 2006. Male–male bonds among Indian Ocean bottlenose dolphins. In V. Sommer & P.L. Vasey (eds.): Homosexual behaviour in animals: an evolutionary perspective. Pp. 107–130. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

May-Collado L.J., Agnarsson I. & Wartzok D. 2007. Phylogenetic review of tonal sound production in whales in relation to sociality. BMC Evolutionary Biology 7, article no. 136, doi: 10.1186/1471-2148-7-136.

Mazikowski L., Hill H. & Noonan M. 2018. Juvenile belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) exhibit sex-specific social affiliations. Aquatic Mammals 44, 500–505, doi: 10.1578/AM.44.5.2018.500.

McGuire T.L., Himes Boor G.K., McClung J.R., Stephens A.D., Garner C., Shelden K.E. & Wright, B. 2020. Distribution and habitat use by endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales: patterns observed during a photo‐identification study, 2005–2017. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 30, 2402–2427, doi: 10.1002/aqc.3378.

Michaud R. 2005. Sociality and ecology of the odontocetes. In K. Ruckstuhl & P. Neuhaus (eds.): Sexual segregation in vertebrates: ecology of the two sexes. Pp. 303–326. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Murayama T., Suzuki R., Kondo Y., Koshikawa M., Katsumata H. & Arai K. 2017. Spontaneous establishing of cross-modal stimulus equivalence in a beluga whale. Scientific Reports 7, article no. 9914, doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-09925-4.

Mymrin N.I., Communities of Novoe Chaplino, Sireniki, Uelen, and Yanrakinnot & Huntington H.P. 1999. Traditional knowledge of the ecology of beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) in the northern Bering Sea, Chukotka, Russia. Arctic 52, 62–70, doi: 10.14430/arctic910.

O’Corry-Crowe G., Suydam R., Quakenbush L., Smith T.G., Lydersen C., Kovacs K.M., Orr J., Harwood L., Litovka D. & Ferrer T. 2020. Group structure and kinship in beluga whale societies. Scientific Reports 10, article no. 11462, doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-67314-w.

O’Corry-Crowe G.M., Suydam R.S., Rosenberg A., Frost K.J. & Dizon A.E. 1997. Phylogeography, population structure and dispersal patterns of the beluga whale Delphinapterus leucas in the western Nearctic revealed by mitochondrial DNA. Molecular Ecology 6, 955–970, doi: 10.1046/j.1365-294X.1997.00267.x.

Paulos R.D., Trone M. & Kuczaj S.A. II. 2010. Play in wild and captive cetaceans. International Journal of Comparative Psychology 23, 701–722.

Recchia C.A. 1994. Social behaviour of captive belugas, Delphinapterus leucas. PhD thesis, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Richard J., Romano T. & Sartini B. 2021. Minimally invasive physiological correlates of social behaviour in belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) under human care. Polar Research 40, article no. 5504, doi: 10.33265/polar.v40.5504.

Richard P.R., Heide-Jørgensen M.P., Orr J.R., Dietz R. & Smith T.G. 2001. Summer and autumn movements and habitat use by belugas in the Canadian High Arctic and adjacent areas. Arctic 54, 207–222, doi: 10.14430/arctic782.

Robeck T.R., Monfort S.L., Calle P.P., Dunn J.L., Jensen E., Boehm J.R., Young S. & Clark S.T. 2005. Reproduction, growth and development in captive beluga (Delphinapterus leucas). Zoo Biology 24, 29–49, doi: 10.1002/zoo.20037.

Sargeant B.L. & Mann J. 2009. Developmental evidence for foraging traditions in wild bottlenose dolphins. Animal Behaviour 78, 715–721, doi: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.05.037.

Sergeant D.E. 1973. Biology of white whales (Delphinapterus leucas) in western Hudson Bay. Journal of the Fisheries Board of Canada 30, 1065–1090, doi: 10.1139/f73-178.

Shelden K.E., Robeck T.R., Goertz C.E., McGuire T.L., Burek-Huntington K.A., Vos D.J. & Mahoney B.A. 2019. Breeding and calving seasonality in the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale population: application of captive fetal growth curves to fetuses and newborns in the wild. Marine Mammal Science 36, 700–708, doi: 10.1111/mms.12653.

Siniscalchi M., Dimatteo S., Pepe A.M., Sasso R. & Quaranta A. 2012. Visual lateralization in wild striped dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba) in response to stimuli with different degrees of familiarity. PLoS One 7, e30001, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0030001.

Skrzypczak N. 2016. Personality traits in the Atlantic spotted dolphin (Stenella frontalis): syndromes and predictors of neophilia. MSc thesis, Florida Atlantic University.

Smith B.R. & Blumstein D.T. 2008. Fitness consequences of personality: a meta-analysis. Behavioral Ecology 19, 448–455, doi: 10.1093/beheco/arm144.

Tamaki N., Morisaka T. & Taki M. 2006. Does body contact contribute towards repairing relationships? The association between flipper-rubbing and aggressive behavior in captive bottlenose dolphins. Behavioural Processes 73, 209–215, doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2006.05.010.

Themelin M., Ribic C.A., Melillo-Sweeting K. & Dudzinski K.M. 2020. A new approach to the study of relationship quality in dolphins: framework and preliminary results. Behavioural Processes 181, article no. 104260, doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2020.104260.

Tsukasa M., Fujii Y., Hashimoto T., Shimoda A., Iijima S., Hayasaka K. Shiroma N., Koshikawa M., Katsumata H., Soichi M. & Arai K. 2012. Preliminary study of object labeling using sound production in a beluga. International Journal of Comparative Psychology 25, 195–207.

Vasey P.L. 1995. Homosexual behavior in primates: a review of evidence and theory. International Journal of Primatology 16, 173–204, doi: 10.1007/BF02735477.

Vergara V. & Barrett-Lennard L.G. 2008. Vocal development in a beluga calf (Delphinapterus leucas). Aquatic Mammals 34, 123–143, doi: 10.1578/AM.34.1.2008.123.

Vergara V., Michaud R. & Barrett-Lennard L. 2010. What can captive whales tell us about their wild counterparts? Identification, usage, and ontogeny of contact calls in belugas (Delphinapterus leucas). International Journal of Comparative Psychology 23, 278–309.

Vergara V. & Mikus M.A. 2019. Contact call diversity in natural beluga entrapments in an Arctic estuary: preliminary evidence of vocal signatures in wild belugas. Marine Mammal Science 35, 434–465, doi: 10.1111/mms.12538.

Yeater D., Guarino S., Lacy S., Dees T. & Hill H. 2017. Do belugas (Delphinapterus leucas), bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), & Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens) display lateralized eye preference when presented with familiar or novel objects? International Journal of Comparative Psychology 30, article no. 35458, doi: 10.46867/ijcp.2017.30.00.02.

Yeater D., Hill H., Baus N., Farnell H. & Kuczaj S. 2014. Visual laterality in belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) and Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens) when viewing familiar and unfamiliar humans. Animal Cognition 17, 1245–1259, doi: 10.1007/s10071-014-0756-x.
How to Cite
Hill, H. M. M., Yeater, D. B., & Noonan, M. (2021). Synergy between behavioural research on beluga whales (<em>Delphinapterus leucas</em&gt;) conducted in zoological and wild settings. Polar Research, 40(S1).