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The beluga or white whale inhabits the cold waters of the Arctic and sub-Arctic. The evolutionary history and ecology of belugas are inextricably linked to the extreme seasonal contrasts of the north and the dynamic nature of the sea ice. As well as adaptation to the cold, life in this region has necessitated the evolution of discrete calving and possibly mating seasons, annual migrations, and a unique feature distinguishing it from most other cetaceans, an annual molt.
Starting in 1992 we have been studying beluga whales across their range, from Alaska to Svalbard, from Russia to Canada and Greenland. Much of our research focuses on tracking movements and foraging behavior, resolving population structure and investigating social organization and mating systems. Working with several Native coastal communities in Alaska, Canada, and Russia as well as various state and federal agencies, including NOAA and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, we are using a combination of technologies including modern molecular genetic techniques, satellite telemetry, and acoustics to tackle these questions.
Our research has mapped migration routes, tracked whales across the polar seas, resolved population structure, and helped identify management units. We’ve also learned about social structure and breeding patterns and how climate change may affect beluga behaviour and ecology.