Beluga whales are stunning white whales that captivate people when they see them in the wild or in aquariums. With their bulging melon foreheads and bright white color, they look like they could be relatives of dolphins. But while belugas share some traits with dolphins, they are actually distinct cetacean species belonging to separate scientific families.
There tends to be confusion around whether belugas are in fact a type of dolphin or not. While understandable given the physical similarities, the relationship is comparable to how wolves and dogs are canids but not the same species.
In this article, I’ll clearly explain the classification, traits, and behaviors of belugas and clarify how they compare to dolphins.
Specifically, we’ll look at questions like:
- Are belugas scientifically classified as dolphins?
- Why are they often called “white whales”?
- How do the habits and habitats of belugas differ from dolphins?
- Do belugas behave like dolphins socially?
By the end, you’ll have a solid understanding of the beluga’s standing among cetaceans. Let’s dive in!
Are Belugas Classified as Dolphins Scientifically?
When it comes to scientific taxonomy, belugas are not considered true dolphins. Belugas belong to the cetacean family Monodontidae, which they share only with the narwhal. The name Monodontidae reflects that belugas and narwhals have only one set of teeth rather than the array of conical teeth that dolphins have.
In contrast, dolphins belong to the family Delphinidae, which includes oceanic dolphins like the bottlenose dolphin as well as freshwater river dolphins. Delphinids are characterized by their complex, sharp teeth used for catching fish.
So, while both belugas and dolphins are toothed whales in the cetacean order, they belong to separate scientific families. Genetically and anatomically, belugas are distinct from all dolphin species. Any physical resemblances are an example of convergent evolution rather than close relations.
What Traits Do Belugas Share with Dolphins?
While belugas are not actually dolphins, they do share some physical traits and behaviors with dolphins due to their shared status as toothed whales:
Both belugas and dolphins use echolocation clicks to navigate and hunt for prey. This sets them apart from baleen whales that filter feed.
They have a fusiform or tapered body shape that allows them to swim rapidly by reducing drag in the water. This distinguishes them from slower whales like manatees.
Belugas and dolphins are both highly social mammals that live in pods and demonstrate complex communication. Many dolphin species like bottlenose dolphins live in large sociable groups like belugas.
Both species are considered among the most intelligent and cognitively advanced cetaceans, demonstrating self-awareness and problem solving abilities.
So, in many ways, belugas and dolphins converged evolutionarily into similar ecological niches as active marine predators. Their intelligence and group behaviors reflect this, even if they aren’t closely related.
Why Are Belugas Commonly Called “White Whales”?
The beluga whale’s distinctive white coloration is the reason for its “white whale” nickname. Most whale and dolphin species have dark grey or black skin and only appear white because of light-colored scars or barnacles covering their backs. But the beluga’s pale, whitish hue comes from its actual skin pigmentation.
This unique white color sets belugas apart from other toothed whales like dolphins and orcas that appear darker grey or black. It likely evolved as camouflage to help them blend into the icy Arctic waters and sea ice where they live. The white color also helps belugas regulate their body temperature in the frigid northern climate.
In addition to this light color, belugas are easily recognized by their round, bulging forehead called a melon. The melon contains fatty tissues that help belugas focus the soundwaves they use for echolocation. Between the paleness and pronounced melon, a beluga whale’s appearance is very distinctive from typical dolphins.
How Are the Habits of Belugas Different from Dolphins?
While belugas and dolphins share some traits as toothed whales, belugas have adapted to survive in a very different habitat than most dolphin species. This leads to differences in their migration patterns, prey, and ability to tolerate cold temperatures.
Belugas live in frigid Arctic and subarctic waters, while dolphins live in temperate to tropical climates. Belugas can even endure partially frozen waters that would be uninhabitable for most dolphins.
Belugas migrate seasonally to follow changes in sea ice cover and stay in areas with open water for hunting. Dolphins generally remain year-round in the same warm water habitats.
Belugas hunt for prey like seals, arctic cod, and salmon suited to the northern climate. Dolphins consume more warm water fish and squid that belugas don’t encounter.
Belugas have more flexible necks and greater lung capacity to survive underwater longer in icy water when hunting or avoiding predators. Dolphins do not deal with such extreme environments.
The beluga’s unique adaptations to frigid Arctic waters set it apart from its warmer-bodied dolphin cousins. These differences in habitat drive many of the variations between the two species’ behaviors.
Do Belugas Behave Like Dolphins?
Despite the different environments belugas and dolphins live in, they do share some common social and behavioral traits as highly intelligent odontocetes.
Like many dolphin species, belugas are extremely playful and leap out of the water. This shows the energetic nature shared by both cetaceans.
Belugas are highly vocal whales that produce many sounds like the complex communication seen in dolphins. They are sometimes called “canaries of the sea” for their vocalizations.
Belugas live in large, stable pods with strong social bonds between members, similar to highly sociable dolphins like bottlenose dolphins.
Young belugas stay with their mothers for an extended juvenile period, learning survival skills like dolphins. This emphasizes the importance of culture and social bonds in both species.
So, while beluga and dolphin behavior is adapted to different ecological niches, they share many underlying social and cognitive traits as highly intelligent whales. Their active nature, use of sound communication, and complex social structures have striking parallels.
While belugas share some physical traits and behaviors with dolphins, they belong to separate scientific families. Belugas are monodontids, while dolphins are delphinids.
The beluga’s distinctive adaptations to living in the frigid Arctic, including its white coloration, flexible neck, migratory habits, and ability to find prey in icy waters sets them apart from most dolphin species. Dolphins are predominantly found in warmer, temperate habitats.
However, belugas and dolphins do share common characteristics as highly intelligent, social toothed whales. Their vocalizations, use of echolocation, playful nature, and complex pod structures show striking behavioral parallels.
So, in some respects, belugas have converged evolutionarily with dolphins to fill similar ecological roles. But they remain distinct species that have adapted to very different marine environments.
Hopefully, this overview has helped clarify the unique standing of beluga whales compared to dolphins. Let me know if you have any other questions!