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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.

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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.

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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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Animals
Watch a School of Humpback Whales 'Fish' Using Nets Made of Bubbles 

Just like humans, humpback whales catch many fish at once by using nets—but instead of being woven from fibers, their nets are made of bubbles.

Unique to humpbacks, the behavior known as bubble-net feeding was recently captured in a dramatic drone video that was created by GoPro and spotted by Smithsonian. The footage features a school of whales swimming off Maskelyne Island in British Columbia, Canada, in pursuit of food. The whales dive down, and a large circle of bubbles forms on the water's surface. Then, the marine mammals burst into the air, like circus animals jumping through a ring, and appear to swallow their meal.

The video offers a phenomenal aerial view of the feeding whales, but it only captures part of the underwater ritual. It begins with the group's leader, who locates schools of fish and krill and homes in on them. Then, it spirals to the water's surface while expelling air from its blowhole. This action creates the bubble ring, which works like a net to contain the prey.

Another whale emits a loud "trumpeting feeding call," which may stun and frighten the fish into forming tighter schools. Then, the rest of the whales herd the fish upwards and burst forth from the water, their mouths open wide to receive the fruits of their labor.

Watch the intricate—and beautiful—feeding process below:

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Big Questions
Why Do Dogs Love to Dig?
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Dog owners with green thumbs beware: It's likely just a matter of time before Fido turns your azalea bed into a graveyard of forgotten chew toys. When dogs aren't digging up your prized garden, they can be found digging elsewhere in your yard, at the beach, and even between your couch cushions at home. But what exactly is behind your dog's drive to turn every soft surface he or she sees into an excavation site?

According to Dr. Emma Grigg, an animal behaviorist and co-author of The Science Behind a Happy Dog, this behavior is completely normal. "When people say 'why do dogs dig,' the first thing that always comes to mind is 'well, because they're dogs,'" she tells Mental Floss. The instinct first appeared in dogs' wolf ancestors, then it was amplified in certain breeds through artificial selection. That's why dogs that were bred to hunt rodents, like beagles and terriers, are especially compelled to dig in places where such animals might make their homes.

But this tendency isn't limited to just a few specific breeds. No matter their original roles, dogs of all breeds have been known to kick up some dirt on occasion. Beyond predatory urges, Dr. Grigg says there are two main reasons a dog may want to dig. The first is to cool off on a hot day. When stuck on an open lawn with little to no shade, unearthing a fresh layer of dirt untouched by the sun is a quick way to beat the heat.

The second reason is to stash away goodies. Imagine your dog gets bored with chewing his favorite bone but knows he wants to come back for it later. Instead of leaving it out in the open where anyone can snatch it up, he decides to bury it in a secret place where only he'll be able to find it. Whether or not he'll actually go back for it is a different story. "There's a disconnect with modern dogs: They know the burying part but they don't always know to dig it up," Dr. Grigg says.

Because digging is part of a dog's DNA, punishing your pet for doing so isn't super effective. But that doesn't mean you should stand idly by as your yard gets turned inside-out. When faced with this behavior in your own dog, one option is to redirect it. This can mean allowing him to dig in a designated corner of the yard while keeping other parts off-limits, or setting up a raised flowerbed or sandbox especially to satisfy that urge. "You can get him interested in the area by burying a couple bones or some interesting things in there for him to dig," Dr. Grigg says. "I like the idea of buried treasure."

If your dog's motive for digging is more destructive than practical, he may have an energy problem. Dogs require a certain amount of stimulation each day, and when their humans don't provide it for them they find their own ways to occupy themselves. Sometimes it's by chewing up shoes, toppling trash cans, or digging ditches the perfect size for twisting ankles. Fortunately, this is nothing more walks and playtime can't improve.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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