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10 Playful Facts About Beluga Whales

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In an ocean filled with over 80 whale species, belugas definitely stand out from the crowd. From their distinct pale shade to their relatively petite stature, you should have no trouble identifying these social sea mammals if you’re ever in their arctic neighborhood. Here are 10 facts worth knowing about the bubbly beluga whale.

1. THEIR NICKNAME ISN'T AS CRUEL AS IT SOUNDS.

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Belugas are sometimes referred to as “melonheads,” and while that sounds like a name thought up by a middle school bully, it actually has some scientific basis. The bulbous structure that occupies the whale’s forehead is indeed called a melon, and it can be found in all species of toothed whales. The fatty organ is believed to aid in echolocation (a process in which animals use echoes of their calls to locate and identify objects), and it can be observed changing shape during whale vocalizations.

2. THEY ARE EXTREMELY VOCAL. 

Another, much nicer-sounding nickname belugas have earned for themselves is “sea canary.” The name comes from the animal’s rich and varied vocal range, which is sometimes loud enough to reach through the hulls of ships. Scientists have documented at least 11 distinct beluga whale sounds, including high-pitched whistles, clicks, mews, bleats, chirps, and bell-like tones. The noises are used for echolocation when navigating dark, arctic waters, and experts believe they also function as a form of communication between whales. Mothers and calves exchange calls that can be compared to the sound of a finger running along a plastic comb.

3. THEY CAN EVEN MIMIC HUMAN SPEECH.

Beluga whales living in captivity have been reported to mimic the speech of their human handlers. A whale named NOC, who lived at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego for 30 years, was one of the first belugas observed to exhibit this type of behavior. A human diver was once convinced to climb out of the whale’s tank when he heard what he thought was another person instructing him to leave. It turned out that the sound had actually been NOC mimicking the word “out.”

4. THEY ALSO USE BUBBLES TO COMMUNICATE.

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In addition to being master vocalists, belugas are also experts when it comes to bubble-blowing. A recent study of 44 captive beluga whales showed that this behavior is more than just a source of amusement for them. While rings and bubbles slowly released from the blowhole are believed to be a sign of playfulness, other bubble types are suspected to serve more functional purposes. Sudden bubble bursts can indicate a defensive reaction, while matching bubble rings blown by a pair of whales is connected to social bonding behaviors. 

5. THEIR UNIQUE COLOR HELPS THEM SURVIVE.

Tiffany Terry via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The word beluga is derived from the Russian term for white, bielo. The mostly pure white shade of adults (calves are dark gray) is arguably the whale’s most distinctive feature, but it’s meant to help them blend in, not stand out. As they swim among the polar ice caps, their pigmentation is thought to act as camouflage to protect them from predators like polar bears and orca whales.

6. THEIR NECKS ARE UNUSUALLY FLEXIBLE.

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Unlike most whales and dolphins, the seven neck vertebrae of the beluga whale are not fused together. This allows the creature the freedom to turn its head side-to-side and nod up and down. The adaptation is thought to help them better target their prey in areas that are full of ice or silt. 

7. THEY CAN SWIM BACKWARDS.

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Belugas possess another ability that is quite unusual among cetaceans: They can swim backwards. Their impressive maneuverability skills make up for their sluggish speeds of two to five miles per hour. 

8. THERE’S A REASON THEY LACK A DORSAL FIN.

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Many whales can be easily spotted when their dorsal fins break through the water’s surface, but this feature is absent from the backs of belugas. The reduction of surface area helps prevent heat loss in the frigid Arctic Ocean, and it also makes it easier for them to glide directly beneath sheets of ice. They do, however, have a sturdy dorsal ridge along their backs that helps them break up ice layers.

9. THEY’RE CLOSE COUSINS WITH NARWHALS.

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The beluga is closely related to another unusual species of arctic-dwelling whale—the narwhal. The two medium toothed whales are the sole members of the Monodontidae family.

10. THEY PACK PLENTY OF BLUBBER.

Eyesplash via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Beluga whales have adapted to their arctic habitat by developing an especially thick layer of insulation. Blubber alone accounts for more than 40 percent of the whale’s body weight. 

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Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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The Queen's Racing Pigeons Are in Danger, Due to an Increase in Peregrine Falcons
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Queen Elizabeth is famous for her love of corgis and horses, but her pet pigeons don't get as much press. The monarch owns nearly 200 racing pigeons, which she houses in a luxury loft at her country estate, Sandringham House, in Norfolk, England. But thanks to a recent boom in the region’s peregrine falcon population, the Queen’s swift birds may no longer be able to safely soar around the countryside, according to The Telegraph.

Once endangered, recent conservation efforts have boosted the peregrine falcon’s numbers. In certain parts of England, like Norfolk and the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire, the creatures can even find shelter inside boxes installed at local churches and cathedrals, which are designed to protect potential eggs.

There’s just one problem: Peregrine falcons are birds of prey, and local pigeon racers claim these nesting nooks are located along racing routes. Due to this unfortunate coincidence, some pigeons are failing to return to their owners.

Pigeon racing enthusiasts are upset, but Richard Salt of Salisbury Cathedral says it's simply a case of nature taking its course. "It's all just part of the natural process,” Salt told The Telegraph. "The peregrines came here on their own account—we didn't put a sign out saying 'room for peregrines to let.' Obviously we feel quite sorry for the pigeons, but the peregrines would be there anyway."

In the meantime, the Queen might want to keep a close eye on her birds (or hire someone who will), or consider taking advantage of Sandringham House's vast open spaces for a little indoor fly-time.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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