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Beluga whales are losing their social bonds as temperatures rise

Deep in the Arctic, beluga whales gather in vibrant groups and rely heavily on their social bonds for survival.

In a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, experts reveal that rising ocean temperatures are disrupting the vital social structures of beluga whales.

Social lives of beluga whales

Beluga whales are medium-sized, white whales that live in the cold waters of the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. They are known for the distinctive bulges on their foreheads called melons and their diverse vocalizations, which earned them the nickname “canaries of the sea.” 

Beluga whales live in groups called pods, which can be small or large, with hundreds of whales gathering during migrations or when food is plentiful. Belugas communicate with each other using a wide variety of sounds to help them navigate, hunt, and stay together in the dark waters of their habitat.

Living in groups 

Living in groups is essential for the whales. It protects them from predators, helps them find food more efficiently, and allows them to raise their young together. 

Young whales learn important skills like hunting and navigation by watching and copying other whales in their group. These strong social bonds and cooperative behaviors show how important it is to protect the beluga whales’ habitat. 

Challenges in studying beluga whales

Studying beluga whales in the Arctic is difficult because of their remote location and harsh environment. Traditional research methods are expensive, require a lot of work, and only cover small areas, which means scientists might not get all the information they need. 

The research introduces a new way to study beluga whales using deep learning, a type of artificial intelligence. Scientists trained computers to analyze high-resolution satellite images using a specific technique called Deep Convolutional Neural Networks. This allowed them to identify groups of beluga whales directly from space. 

However, the researchers also acknowledge the limitation of the model. “Unfortunately, in areas where icebergs of similar size to beluga whales were present, the accuracy of the models was not good (less than 50% accuracy), and the images were photo-interpreted to detect beluga whales manually,” explain the researchers.

Ocean temperature and changing social habits

During the summer, beluga whales gather in large groups for feeding and socializing. The researchers observed that these groups became smaller as the ocean temperature increased. This pattern was consistent across all 11 beluga whale populations studied, suggesting a widespread trend.

The researchers also analyzed the data statistically and confirmed a negative relationship between water temperature and group size. They measured the minimum distance between individual whales within the groups and found that this distance increased as the water temperature became warmer.

Alarming predictions

The study predicts that rising ocean temperatures due to climate change will pose significant challenges for beluga whales. The research suggests that the ocean temperatures in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions could rise by up to 3°C by the end of the century.

“This could, in turn, push their distribution patterns towards cooler southern areas, overlapping with northward distribution shifts of other marine mammal species, increasing habitat and resource competition or even leading to drastic population depletion, depending on species ability to adapt to new climate scenarios,” the team noted.

The study highlights the need to understand how beluga whales will adapt to these changes. Whether they can find new habitats, adjust their migration patterns, or even change their diet will be crucial for their survival. If they are unable to adapt, the study warns of drastic population declines.

Urgent action is needed

“Under this scenario, we recommend a prompt and global reduction of gas emissions and the protection of beluga whale territories from marine traffic if we wish to preserve this vulnerable species,” said the researchers.

The experts suggest a comprehensive strategy to help beluga whales survive. It is vital to reduce greenhouse gases to slow global warming. We must also limit our impact on the marine environment, boost research, promote global cooperation, and engage local communities to safeguard belugas.


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