Beluga whales are fascinating marine mammals that inhabit the cold waters of the Arctic and subarctic. If you’ve ever seen a beluga whale in person or in photos, you were likely captivated by their striking all-white coloration and bulbous forehead melons.
But beyond their appearance, belugas have adapted in incredible ways to survive in their frigid environments. One key factor is their diverse diet and flexible feeding behaviors. Belugas also use echolocation not just for hunting but for communication and navigation.
In this article, we’ll explore the question: What do beluga whales eat?
First off, belugas are opportunistic eaters that consume a wide variety of prey. This adaptability is essential for finding adequate nutrition across seasons and locations.
Their main staple consists of fish like Arctic cod, capelin, smelt, and herring. But belugas will eat other organisms too when available, including squid, crabs, clams, and even seals.
We’ll cover the details of their preferred foods, hunting techniques, and feeding patterns across the year. Understanding what belugas eat also tells us a lot about how they’ve evolved as highly specialized Arctic animals.
What Are the Main Prey Items for Beluga Whales?
As opportunistic feeders, belugas consume a diverse buffet of prey, but fish make up the bulk of their diet. Their flexible feeding behaviors allow them to take advantage of whatever food sources are seasonally abundant in their Arctic habitat. Belugas do not chew their food, they swallow prey whole.
When hunting, belugas can dive to depths of 20-40 meters normally, and up to 500 meters at maximum when searching for food. The primary fish species belugas eat include:
- Arctic cod: These cold-water fish are well adapted to Arctic waters. Belugas often find large schools of cod to feast on.
- Capelin: A common forage fish that belugas can rapidly suck up by the mouthful. Capelin provides a nutrient-dense meal.
- Smelt: Another small schooling fish that swarms the northern latitudes in summer, providing belugas easy access to calories.
- Herring: These large, energy-rich fish migrate in huge numbers, making them a prime target for beluga whales during the summer months.
In addition to fish, belugas will eat invertebrates like jellyfish when they encounter them. Their flexible jaws allow them to consume the jellies’ soft bodies and venomous stingers.
Belugas use echolocation to hunt fish in the dark or murky Arctic waters. The clicking noises they make bounce off their prey, allowing them to pinpoint the size, location, and movements of fish. This helps belugas efficiently find and consume fish even when visibility is poor.
Do Belugas Hunt for Larger Animals?
While fish make up most of their diet, belugas are also opportunistic hunters that will eat larger prey when available. This adaptability allows them to take advantage of different food sources depending on location and season.
In addition to fish, some larger animals belugas occasionally consume include:
- Squid: Belugas have been observed hunting giant squid in the deep Arctic waters. They can subdue these large invertebrates with their speed and coordinated attacks.
- Crabs: Belugas plunge to the seafloor to find and consume crabs, crunching through their hard shells with their muscular jaws.
- Clams: Using their melon-shaped heads, belugas can crack open clam shells on the ocean floor to access the meat inside.
- Shrimp: Belugas will slurp up swarms of nutrient-rich shrimp when given the opportunity.
- Snails: Their flexible lips allow belugas to suck snails right out of their shells.
There are even reports of belugas working together to hunt seals. They seem to have developed advanced coordinated hunting techniques to subdue these large, fast marine mammals when needed.
Belugas have also been observed opportunistically eating dead whales, seals, and other carcasses. This provides them with an occasional protein-rich meal when large animals die in their habitat.
Do Beluga Whales Have Any Predators?
As apex predators in the Arctic marine food web, belugas do not have many natural predators once they reach adulthood. However, younger calves are vulnerable to predators, and all belugas face threats from certain large mammal hunters.
The main predators of beluga whales are:
- Killer whales: Also known as orcas, these larger dolphin relatives hunt belugas, especially younger calves and juveniles. Killer whales are fast enough to catch belugas and powerful enough to subdue them.
- Polar bears: When belugas come close to shore or get trapped in ice, polar bears will snatch them. Polar bears can smell belugas trapped under ice and pull their 2,000+ pound bodies out of the water onto the ice to eat them. These massive bears overwhelm belugas with their strength and size.
Beluga adults are usually safe from predators due to their large size and group defensive behaviors. But killer whales and polar bears pose a constant threat to younger, more vulnerable belugas. Their attacks remind us of the ever-present danger even apex predators face in the unforgiving Arctic.
How Do Belugas Catch and Consume Their Prey?
Belugas have evolved several physical adaptations and hunting techniques to effectively catch and consume their prey. Here’s an overview of how they eat:
- Teeth: Belugas have 30-40 cone-shaped teeth they use to grasp, hold, and swallow food. Their flexible necks allow them to twist and turn during feeding to tear pieces of prey off.
- Suction: To catch fish, belugas powerfully suck water and prey into their mouths. The fish are swallowed whole and alive.
- Deep diving: For benthic prey like crabs, clams, and shrimp, belugas dive down and use their melon-shaped heads to root along the seafloor. They then suck up any stirred-up prey.
- Dark hunting: Using echolocation, belugas can continue to hunt and feed even in extremely dark ocean depths. However, noise pollution can impact their echolocation and communication. The noises they make bounce off prey, revealing their location.
- Group hunting: When attacking larger prey like seals, belugas may work together and coordinate their movements to isolate and overwhelm their target.
- Jaw strength: Belugas generate an extremely powerful bite, allowing them to crunch through thick shells and bones. Their flexible jaws unhinge widely to swallow large prey.
On average, adult belugas consume 20-30 pounds of food per day. Their variety of hunting adaptations allows them to take advantage of many energy-rich food sources.
Do Belugas Feed Differently depending on Location or Season?
Beluga whales demonstrate flexible feeding patterns that change depending on the time of year and their location.
During winter months, belugas feed extensively in offshore, ice-free waters before migrating back to coastal areas and rivers in the summer. Their diet adapts to take advantage of whatever prey is seasonally abundant. Belugas build up thick blubber reserves by early spring.
In the summer, belugas gorge on dense schools of fish that migrate to the rich estuarine waters of bays, rivers, and inlets. Capelin, smelt, herring, and salmon runs provide convenient sources of nutrition during summer. Their blubber reserves become thinner by early fall after fasting in the summer.
In contrast, winter diets rely more on Arctic cod and other deep-sea fish that belugas can still access beneath the ice. Their echolocation allows them to find fish even in the perpetual darkness of an Arctic winter.
Some beluga populations even fast for short periods when food availability drops. Their blubber stores act as energy reserves when prey is scarce seasonally.
Belugas also feed more actively at night when some prey species like squid and capelin rise from the depths into shallow waters. Even in 24-hour darkness, belugas capitalize on these vertical migrations.
Their opportunistic and migratory feeding behaviors are essential adaptations for surviving the Arctic’s seasonal food fluctuations and extremes. This dietary flexibility allows belugas to flourish in both marginal and bountiful conditions.
As we can see, Beluga whales have adaptable diets that allow them to thrive in the Arctic’s extremes.
Though fish like cod, capelin, and herring are their staple foods, belugas will eat squid, seals, and even carcasses when available. Their flexible hunting and feeding patterns change by season and location to take advantage of what’s abundant.
Migratory habits, echolocation, fat storage, and coordination help belugas find food even when conditions are harsh.
This dietary adaptability remains key to the survival of these white whales in their dynamic polar environment.
Understanding what belugas eat provides insight into their evolution as specialized Arctic mammals.