Beluga whales are the only whales capable of shaping their tongue and lips, a skill which they use to capture prey by suction and swallow it whole.
Beluga whales have incredible flexibility of their tongue and lips and can use their lips to form the shape of an “O”, a characteristic not shared by any other whale.
Because belugas don’t have many big, sharp teeth, they often rely on their flexible tongue to trap prey in their mouths by suction. When capturing prey, a beluga’s tongue forms a seal around the fish, allowing it to swallow the prey without having any water go down the throat. This helps to reduce salt intake and prevent dehydration. Belugas do not use their teeth for chewing and, instead, eat everything whole. Consequently, a beluga’s prey cannot be too large or the whale will risk choking on it.
Belugas can also create a very powerful spit by forcing water out of their mouth. This is used to blow away sand, silt, and mud when hunting for benthic prey.
Similar to other cetaceans, a beluga’s tongue is also used as a straw for nursing when they are young. It curls, similar to a human’s, and rests against the roof of the mouth. It has a water-tight seal due to scalloped edges around the edge of their tongue. Some whales retain these scalloped edges; in others, the edges fade over time.
Sources: (AMMPA, 2014, 2017; Balsiger, 2003; Katona, Rough, & Richardson, 1993; Kleinenberg, Yablokov, Bel’kovich, & Tarasevich, 1969; Lentfer, 1988; Martin, 1996; Paine, 1995; Williams, 2002)
Image: Eric Kilby