The role of aquaria in beluga research and conservation

  • Tracy A. Romano Mystic Aquarium, Research Dept., Mystic, CT, USA
  • Laura A. Thompson Mystic Aquarium, Research Dept., Mystic, CT, USA
  • Maureen V. Driscoll Mystic Aquarium, Research Dept., Mystic, CT, USA
  • Ebru Unal Mystic Aquarium, Research Dept., Mystic, CT, USA
  • Allison D. Tuttle Mystic Aquarium, Zoological Operations, Mystic, CT, USA
  • Gayle Sirpenski Mystic Aquarium, Zoological Operations, Mystic, CT, USA
  • Mary Ellen Mateleska Mystic Aquarium, Education and Conservation, Mystic, CT, USA
  • Dale Wolbrink Mystic Aquarium, Public Affairs, Mystic, CT, USA
Keywords: education, husbandry, whales, recovery and management, Delphinapterus leucas, zoos


Aquaria that care for and maintain belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) under professional care have the opportunity to contribute to the conservation of wild belugas through research, expertise in animal care and husbandry, and engaging and educating the public about threats to the species’ health and population sustainability. In an aquarium setting, belugas can be studied under controlled conditions, with known variables that are often difficult to discern when studying wild belugas. Information on nutrition, health status and environmental parameters can be easily obtained in a controlled setting. Biological samples are collected from professionally trained whales that voluntarily participate in informative experimental paradigms. Research studies in aquaria seek to contribute to the recovery and management of endangered beluga populations, such as those in Cook Inlet. Mystic Aquarium’s efforts are presented as a case study. Key research priorities address action items in the Cook Inlet Beluga Recovery Plan and include: (1) understanding the beluga immune system, microbial communities, pathogens and disease; (2) development of non-invasive methods for assessing reproductive status, body condition and health in wild whales; (3) investigation of diving physiology and the impact of altered dive patterns on health; (4) understanding reproduction, a key to recovery and sustainability of wild populations; (5) development and testing of new technologies for tracking and monitoring whales and habitat use; and (6) understanding how noise affects beluga hearing, behaviour and physiology. Expertise in animal handling, behaviour and nutrition contribute to rescue, rehabilitation and capture release efforts. Moreover, ‘students’ of all ages have the opportunity to be engaged, educated and contribute to beluga conservation.


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How to Cite
Romano, T. A., Thompson, L. A., Driscoll, M. V., Unal, E., Tuttle, A. D., Sirpenski, G., Mateleska, M. E., & Wolbrink, D. (2021). The role of aquaria in beluga research and conservation. Polar Research, 40(S1).