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After a 440-day gestation period, female okapis retreat into dense forest vegetation to give birth to a single newborn calf weighing 14-20 kg.
Courtship of females okapi by males is unobtrusive and cautious. Okapi partners begin courtship by circling, sniffing, and licking each other. Eventually, the male asserts his dominance by extending his neck, tossing his head, and thrusting one leg foreward. This display is followed by mounting and copulation. After mating, the male and female part ways.
The okapi gestation period lasts about 440 days, and females retreat into dense forest vegetation to give birth. Newborn okapi calves weigh 14-30 kilograms at birth.
The okapi’s lifespan is about 15-33 years in captivity, but data from wild populations is unavailable.
The okapi’s lifespan is about 15-33 years in captivity, but data from wild populations is unavailable.
Generation length is broadly estimated at around eight years, based on calculations made for the global captive population.
The most giraffe-like feature of the okapi is the long, dark blue-violet, prehensile tongue which is used for plucking from trees and shrubs as well as for grooming.
The most giraffe-like feature of the okapi is the long, dark blue-violet, prehensile tongue which is used for plucking buds, leaves, and branches from trees and shrubs, as well as for grooming.
This tongue is proportionally longer than that of the giraffe’s. and has a pointed extremity, smooth base, and papillae on the surface. The okapi can extend its tongue 25 centimeters beyond its snout in order to groom the entirety of its body, even wiping the eyes and cleaning the ears and nostrils.
Okapi keep defined, non-exclusive, overlapping home ranges with males maintaining more land than females and breeding females having more stable ranges.
Okapi have defined, non-exclusive, overlapping home ranges of several square kilometers and typically occur at densities of about 0.6 animals per square kilometer.
Two adults, one juvenile, and one young may inhabit the same home range, but groups of more than three have never been recorded outside of captivity. Calves remain within their mothers’ home ranges during the first 2-6 months after birth. Okapi generally avoid individuals in adjacent home ranges.
Adult female okapis average home ranges of 3-5 kilometers squared (1.9-3.1 miles squared,) and travel up to 2.5 kilometers, or 1.6 miles, in a day. They mainly share their home ranges with other females or their young. Breeding females have the most stable home ranges.
In comparison, adult males have slightly larger home ranges, averaging 13 kilometers squared, but usually no smaller than 10 kilometers squared, or 6.2 miles squared. Male okapis will travel up to 4 kilometers, or 2.5, miles per day. Adult males with undefined, wide-ranging home ranges move more often and move at greater distances averaging 8-12 kilometers per day.
Lastly, subadult okapis maintain home ranges of 2-3 kilometers squared, or 1.2-1.9 miles squared. They have a more restricted movement than adults and have a tendency to shift.
Male okapi possess ossicones, a pair of supraorbital, hair-covered frontal horns that can grow up to 15 cm in length and incline posteriodorsally from the skull.
Male okapi possess permanent ossicones, a pair of supraorbital, hair-covered frontal horns that are fused to the frontal bones over the orbits and project rearward. These horns are variable in girth and length, but do not exceed 15 centimeters above the skull. The hair on the tops of these horns is often rubbed to the bone, but they do not shed.
Only male okapi possess these horns, whereas females possess hair whorls where the horns of males are located. Sometimes,however, small rudimentary horns may be present in females. There are no other cranial features of the okapi that have been found to be significantly dimorphic.
The okapi is the only species of forest ungulate to depend on understory foliage and feeds on more than 100 species of vegetation, many of which are poisonous to humans.
The okapi is a mainly diurnal species that forages along fixed, well-trodden paths through the forest, but has also been recorded feeding at night.
Okapi are unique in being the only species of forest ungulate to depend on understory foliage. They feed primarily on the leaves, buds, grasses, fruits, ferns, fungi, and shoots of more than 100 different species of forest vegetation. Many of the plant species fed upon by the okapi are known to be poisonous to humans.
Examination of okapi feces has revealed that the charcoal from trees burnt by lightning is consumed as well. Field observations indicate that the okapi’s mineral and salt requirements are filled primarily by a sulfurous, slightly salty, reddish clay found near rivers and streams.
There is sexual dimorphism in the okapi as females are taller and slightly more red than males, have smaller home ranges, and lack the frontal horns that males possess.
There is sexual dimorphism in the okapi.
Physically, females may be slightly red in color and average 4.2 centimeters taller than males. They also lack the ossicones, or pair of supraorbital, hair-covered frontal horns, that males possess. Instead, females possess “bumps,” or hair whorls, where the horns of males are located. Sometimes, however, small rudimentary horns may be present in females. There are no other cranial features of the okapi that have been found to be significantly dimorphic.
When it comes to distribution, male okapi have home ranges that average 8-10 km² larger than those of females.
The okapi differs from its nearest extant relative, the giraffe, in habitat, size, proportion, coloration, vocalizations, and other distinguishable features.
The okapi is readily distinguishable from its nearest extant relative, the giraffe (giraffa camelopardalis).
Firstly, the two species are allopatric and occur in separate, non-overlapping geographical areas. The okapi occurs in the rainforests of central Africa and the giraffe inhabits sub-Saharan savanna and woodlands.
Physically, the body of the okapi is smaller than the giraffe, with the neck and leg proportions of the okapi more resembling those of bovid and cervid ruminants than those of giraffe. The okapi’s back is nearly level while the giraffe’s back slopes markedly toward the rear. Cervical vertebrae of the okapi are unelongated, unlike those of the giraffe, and number five sacral in contrast to the three or four of the giraffe. Okapi also only have three tarsal ankle bones compared to the four tarsal bones of the giraffe. Lastly, the okapi also has interdigital glands on all four feet, with the glands being slightly larger on the front feet, unlike giraffes.
Only male okapi possess ossicones; however, small rudimentary horns may be present in females, whereas both male and female giraffes have horns.
The okapi’s coloring also contrasts with that of the giraffe as the okapi possess individually variable, tempered white and creamy white horizontal stripes extending anteriorly from the posterior face of the hindlimbs and rump.
Okapi have few vocalizations, but vocalize more than giraffes.
Okapi were previously thought to be nocturnal, but are now considered diurnal with 30-50% of their day spent resting, and foraging occurring in the mid-morning or late afternoon.
Okapi were previously thought to be nocturnal, but are now considered mainly diurnal.
Okapi feeding peaks at mid-morning and late afternoon. They mostly forage during the day, but have also been recorded feeding at night.
30-50% of the okapi’s day is spent resting. There may be some okapi movement during the first few hours of darkness and most nocturnal movement occurs on moon-lit nights.
Okapi are limited to closed, high canopy forests and dense rainforests and frequent river banks and stream beds.
Okapi are limited to closed, high canopy forests and dense rainforests between 450 and 1,500 meters above sea level, the middle elevation for their range. They occur in a wide range of primary and older secondary forest types and frequent river banks and stream beds.
They will use seasonally inundated areas when the substrate is still wet, but they do not occur in truly inundated sites or extensive swamp forest. Tree fall gaps are selected as foraging sites for okapi during the early stages of regeneration.
Okapi do not extend into gallery forests or the forest-savannah ecotone and do not persist in disturbed habitats surrounding larger settlements.
The okapi has a striking visual appearance and unique color pattern that allows it to disappear into the background of dense vegetation and rotting leaves where it lives.
The okapi has a striking visual appearance.
The body is a generally dark chocolate-brown velvety pelage that contrasts with the tapered white or creamy white horizontal stripes on the rear haunches and upper front legs. The white coloring continues across the anklets and stockings on the lower legs. The cheeks, throat, and the distal ventrum are white, grey, or tan and provide additional contrast to the dark reddish brown to black colors of the back and sides.
The hairs of the okapi’s white stripes are longer than the hairs in the dark stripes.
The unique color pattern of the okapi allows it to disappear into the background of dense vegetation and rotting leaves where it lives. Okapi also have poor eyesight and the coloring can help guide calves. Young okapi rely on the white coloring of the anklets and stockings on the lower legs of the okapi to contrast against the dark forest, thus allowing them to easily follow behind.
Okapis are endemic to the tropical rainforests of northeastern Zaire and are generally limited to altitudes between 450 and 1,000 meters.
Okapis are endemic to tropical forests of northeastern Zaire and are generally limited to altitudes between 450 and 1,000 meters. However, they have been reported at altitudes above 1,000 meters in the eastern montane rainforests, with one sighting at 1,450 meters on Mount Hoyo in the upper Ituri. They do not occur lower than 500 meters or in the swamp forests of western Zaire.
In general, the geographical range is limited in the east by high montane forests, in the west by swamp forests, in the north by savanna of the Sahel/Soudan, and in the south by open woodland. The specific distribution ranges through the Ubangui, Uele, Aruwimi, and Ituri rainforests; from Libangi on the Ubangui River in the west to near Lakes Kivu and Edward in the east, north to Faradje, and south to the Sankuru and Maniema districts.
They are most common in the Wamba and Epulu areas.
In the wild, okapi are mainly solitary and occur alone or in mother-offspring pairs, usually only coming together for mating.
In the wild, okapi are mainly solitary and occur alone or in mother-offspring pairs. They primarily only come together for mating as males and females spend very little time together.
Although they are not social animals, okapi can tolerate each other in the wild and may even feed in small groups for short periods of time.
10% of an okapi’s total time is spent with other animals.
The okapi is a medium-sized giraffid resembling a horse and averaging 2.5 m long, 1.5 m tall at the shoulder, and 250 kg.
The okapi is a medium-sized giraffid with a form superficially resembling that of a horse.
Average body length is 2.5 meters, and average height at the shoulder is 1.5 meters. Body masses of adult okapis average 250 kilograms and range from 200 to 300 kilograms.
Although the okapi falls under the Giraffidae family and is related to the giraffe, some researchers debate it’s a closer relative to the nilgai antelope in the Bovidae family.
Although the okapi is currently classified in the Giraffidae family and its closest living relative is the giraffe, there is scientific debate on where the okapi should be classified.
Some researchers dissent, pointing out that important differences in reproductive organs, fetuses, bile acid salts, and skeletal anatomy make the okapi more likely to not belong in the giraffe family at all, but to be a closer relative of the nilgai antelope in the bovid, (cattle,) family.
The okapi has larger, more flexible ears and a relatively longer neck than other ruminants, perhaps correlated with locomotor coordination of the giraffid pacing gait.
The relationships between the length of the forelimbs and hind limbs in okapi are similar to those found in other artiodactyl genera.
The okapi has larger, more flexible ears and a relatively longer neck than other ruminants, though, which is perhaps correlated with locomotor coordination of the giraffid pacing gait.
Unlike the giraffe, the okapi has interdigital glands on all four feet, with the glands being slightly larger on the front feet.
The brachyodont teeth of okapi are like other paleotragines, but it has smaller incisors and larger cheek teeth.
The brachyodont cheek teeth and dolichocephalic skull of okapi are like those of other paleotragines. However, unlike its fossil relatives of the Palaeotraginae, Okapia johnstoni has slightly smaller permanent incisors, slightly larger permanent cheek teeth and the second upper deciduous molar lacks an external cingulum.
Okapi show a giraffe-like pattern in their teeth with a large gap between the incisors and the premolars. The dental formula is 0/3, 0/1, 3/3, 3/3, with a total of 32 teeth, consistent with all giraffids. The enamel is rough or wrinkled, like giraffes, and the deciduous and permanent canines are incisor-like and bilobate, lobed as are those of giraffes. The lobes are most obvious in the unworn teeth of calves. The incisors form a semicircle at the end of the lower jaw.
The okapi’s scientific name, Okapia johnstoni, is a combination of the pygmy word, O’Api and a tribute to the okapi’s 1901 western discoverer, Sir Harry Johnston.
The okapi’s scientific name, Okapia johnstoni, is a combination of the Mbuti pygmy word, O’Api, and a tribute to the okapi’s western discoverer, Sir Harry Johnston.
The okapi was not recognized by western scientists until 1901. Until then, the okapi had eluded potential discovery. While exploring the Congo from 1882-1886, Wilhelm Junker deemed a striped piece of animal skin from a Makapi as the skin of a musk deer. In June 1889, Captain Jean Baptise Marchand saw a timid animal that was unidentifiable from zoological literature, which he assumed an antelope.
In 1900, Johnston traveled to the Ituri Forest after hearing rumors of an Abada unicorn and an unusual Atti donkey from explorers such as Sir Henry Morton Stanley, whom had spent many years exploring Africa and published In Darkest Africa. In Africa, Johnston was informed by the Mbuti pygmies that there was a large, donkey-like animal with stripes that inhabited the area, which they called an O’api. Months later at Fort Mbeni in the Semliki Forest, a post commanded by Lieutentant Meura, Johnston was given bandoliers and belts made by the Bambuba tripe from a striped animal which they called an “okapi.”
After organizing an expedition, Johnston began following O’api tracks, led by Mbuti guides. He was surprised by the tracks, expecting the single-hoofed impression of a zebra, donkey, or horse, but instead finding a cloven-hooved footprint possessing two toes on each foot. Later, Lieutenant Meura sent Johnston two pieces of striped skin that Johnston then sent to London. Thus, the okapi was given the species name, Johnstoni in Johnston’s honor.
Throughout the month of July, FaunaFocus will feature the elusive forest giraffe, otherwise known as the okapi! This unusual animal is revered for its striking markings, especially the horizontal black and white stripes found on its legs. This hooved mammal is listed as “Endangered” by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
|SketchAlong||July 13||9:00 pm|
|Throwback Thursday||July 19||All Day!|
|CreateAlong||July 27||9:00 pm|
|Free-For-All Deadline||July 29||12:00 pm|
|Free-For-All Livestream||July 30||9:00 pm|
|Noelle M. Brooks||AmandaRuthArt||FairytaleFox (JenniferCharlee)|
|Date||June 2018||Theme||Beluga Whale|
The month of June has seemingly flown by as the FaunaFocus Free-For-All has come to an end. Many artists embraced the blubbery, achromatic appearance of the beluga whale and submitted their carefully crafted compositions featuring this beloved cetacean. With a variety of media, styles, and personal perspectives, this month’s competition showed much talent and the final assessments were especially close!
Congratulations to June 2018’s FaunaFocus Free-For-All Winner, ActivateAngel, with an unusually complex composition crafted with simplistic elements. This graphic design utilized just four colors to create a family portrait of an adult beluga and its calf. With bright, saturated colors and a toony stylization of the belugas’ expressions, this piece radiated with a fun and calming energy.
ActivateAngel has chosen the FaunaFocus for the month of August 2018, which will be announced at the end of July’s Free-For-All critique livestream. As we enter July, FaunaFocus will feature the strikingly striped Okapi, chosen by Draws With Kitties.
Female beluga whales become sexually mature before males, at 4-7 years, and reproduce every 2-3 years until about 20 years of age.
Females become sexually mature at 4 to 7 years of age, while males take 7 to 9 years. Females reproduce every 2 to 3 years and stop reproducing in their early twenties.
Beluga whale calves are able to swim alongside their mothers from birth but are totally dependent on them for the first year of life.
Beluga whale calves are very well developed and have a grayish coloration. They are precocious and are able to swim alongside their mothers from birth.
The mother provides protection and guidance for the offspring who is totally dependent on the mother for the first year of life. A female beluga can lactate for up to two years. Beluga calves are totally dependent on the mother’s milk for one year but will eat a combined diet of milk and shrimp into the second year.
Beluga whales have a loose, fatty region on top of their head, called a melon, that is critical for echolocation.
The head of a beluga whale is dominated by the melon, a fat filled area on top of the frontal portion of the whale’s skull that obscures the rostrum, or upper jaw. It is critical to focusing and projecting echolocation signals and is the means by which the sounds a beluga makes are ultimately projected to the water.
The melon can function as an “acoustic lens,” focusing sound into a beam the way a flashlight’s lens and reflector focus light. Belugas have the ability to change the physical shape of their melon, which may allow them to control sound transmission.
The fat composing the melon is distinct; it cannot be broken down to produce energy, indicating its importance.
Sources: (AMMPA, 2014, 2017; Bonner, 1989; Cranford, Amundin, & Norris, 1996; Frankel, 2008; Pabst, Rommel, & McLellan, 1999; Paine, 1995; Reeves, Stewart, Clapham, & Powell, 2002; Williams, 2002)
Image: Steve Snodgrass
Beluga whales deliver their offspring in river mouths because the waters are warmer for their calves that lack fully developed blubber.
During the summer months of May through July, beluga whales are found at the mouths of rivers, where they feed, socialize, and deliver their offspring.
These waters are about ten degrees warmer than their usual arctic environments, at 18 to 20 degrees Celsius (64-68 degrees Fahrenheit), instead of 8 to 10 degrees Celsius (46-50 degrees Fahrenheit).
The warmer waters of the estuary benefit neonate calves, as they have a thinner blubber layer than full-grown adults and a strong dependence on their mothers. Females and their calves are especially tied to the estuary and are the first to return after a disturbance, such as boats or hunting.
Male beluga whales live longer than females at about 40 years compared to 32 years and belugas in captivity live longer than those in the wild.
The reported life expectancies of wild beluga whales vary widely based on the study location and methodology used.
The age of the oldest documented beluga whale in the wild was estimated to be 38 years old. Published estimates of adult annual survival rates range from 83% to 97%. When applied to animals that have survived one full year, these annual survival rates can be converted into median life expectancies ranging from 3.49 years to 22.76 years, and average life expectancies ranging from 5.4 years to 32.8 years, respectively. The majority of reported values of life expectancy of wild belugas from one year of age range between 10 and 15 years.
The lifespan for female beluga whales is thought to be about 32 years and that for males about 40 years.
As of January 2013, the oldest beluga whales in zoological parks and aquariums were over 40 years old. Based on previously published data on wild belugas, it would be quite rare, though not impossible, for an animal in the wild to reach 40 years of age. Based on an analysis of data, the annual survival rate of beluga whales in human care has been calculated as 97%. This is the same as the highest reported value for a wild population. The number can be interpreted as meaning that a one-year-old beluga in human care would have a median life expectancy of 22.76 years, and an average life expectancy of 32.8 years. Thus, it is clear that from one year of age, the adult life expectancy of beluga whales in human care is at least equal to, if not greater than, beluga whales from one year of age in the wild.
Only 5-10% of a beluga whale’s time is spent at the surface of the water and they are rarely seen breaching.
Only five to ten percent of a beluga’s time is spent at the surface of the water. They are rarely seen breeching, although they bounce vertically out of the water about one-third of the body’s length.
Beluga whales are among the most vocal species of cetaceans and use their vocalizations for echolocation, mating, and communication.
Beluga whales are considered to be among the most vocal species of cetaceans.
They use their vocalizations for echolocation, mating, and communication. Belugas also use body language such as grinding their teeth or splashing around. Some communication undoubtedly occurs when babies are in contact with their mothers.
Beluga whales have the most varied diet of any small whale feeding on over 100 species of fish and invertebrates, and their diet changes depending on season, location, and water temperature.
Beluga whales have the most varied diet of any small whale. They are opportunistic feeders and prey upon over 100 species of fish and invertebrates throughout their range. Their diet varies with season and location, and their food intake changes with the water temperature.
Known prey of belugas include: marine fish, (Arctic cod, salmon, herring, haddock, Arctic char, flounder, smelt, sole, sculpin, skates, flatfish, and halibut,) freshwater fish, (trout, whitefish, northern pike, grayling, and tomcod,) cephalopods, (squids and octopuses,) other mollusks, (clams, mussels, and snails,) crustaceans, (shrimp and crabs,) marine worms, and even zooplankton.
Because of their expandable forestomach, belugas can process a large amount of food at once. One whale was found in the Cook Inlet with 12 adult coho salmon in its stomach, weighing a total of 28 kilograms, or 62 pounds.
Sources: (AMMPA, 2014, 2017; Balsiger, 2003; Katona, Rough, & Richardson, 1993; Kleinenberg, Yablokov, Bel’kovich, & Tarasevich, 1969; Martin, 1996; Reidenberg & Laitman, 2002)
Image: Ross G. Strachan Photography
Predation from killer whales, polar bears, and humans, as well as ice entrapment, are common causes of premature death of beluga whales.
Killer whales, polar bears, and humans prey on beluga whales, however, neither killer whales nor polar bears are currently a significant threat to beluga populations.
Polar bears will attack belugas in the same way they would attack a seal, which entails lying in wait at breathing holes.
Killer whales come around August. Belugas can usually hear killer whales, so this makes it difficult for killer whales to attack them. Also, the conspicuous fin makes it almost impossible for a killer whale to maneuver in ice.
It is not uncommon for groups of belugas to become trapped in areas that ice over, often restricting them to small holes in the ice for breathing. If the ice does not break up in time for them to escape, the whales face suffocation or starvation.
In an unusual incident in 1984-85, up to 3,000 belugas were trapped in Russia’s Senjavin Strait. Solid ice stretching 12 miles blocked the path to open water and 1,000 belugas died from hunting, hunger, lack of air, and injuries.
Despite relative isolation from humans, human activities are negatively affecting beluga whales. These activities include habitat alteration in estuarine environments as a result of hydroelectric development in rivers. Other long-term threats are competition with fisheries, off-shore oil exploration, vessel traffic, and pollution. Humans used to hunt belugas for their skin and oil, but not much anymore.
Sources: (AMMPA, 2014, 2017; Balsiger, 2003; Caron & Smith, 1990; Finley, Miller, Davis, & Greene, 1990; Katona, Rough, & Richardson, 1993; Leatherwood, Reeves, Perrin, & Evans, 1982; Leatherwood & Reeves, 1983; Lowry, Burns, & Nelson, 1987; Paine, 1995; Seaman, Lowry, & Frost, 1982; Shelden, Rugh, Mahoney, & Dahlheim, 2003; Thomas, Kastelein, & Awbrey, 1990; Williams, 2002)
Image: The Lamb Family
Humans used to hunt beluga whales for skin, food, and oil, but now look to them for ecotourism and entertainment.
Beluga whales were once hunted for the profit from their skin, food, and other items, such as oil. Belugas also consume many fish, especially since they travel in herds of between one hundred and a thousand, thus reducing the amount of fish fisherman can capture and promoting the hunting of beluga whales. Much of the hunting of belugas has died down since the seventies, however.
Now, because of their large social groupings, belugas provide ecotourists with entertainment.
Beluga whales have a very acute hearing, especially at higher frequencies, and can hear as well at 300m underwater as they can above water.
Beluga whales have a very acute hearing, especially at higher frequencies. They hear a wide range of frequencies with the best sensitivity in the ultrasonic range around 30 or 35 kilohertz and sensitivity extending to at least 130 kilohertz. For comparison, the peak range of human hearing is between .02 and 20 kilohertz. Studies have shown that belugas can hear as well in water as deep as 300 meters, (984 feet), as they can at the surface.
The small external ears of belugas may be useful for hearing low-frequency sounds, however, most vocalizations made by odontocetes are above 30 kilohertz, emphasizing the great importance of the lower jaw pathway for sound reception. Belugas have good in frequency tuning and are able to detect echolocation signals in high levels of background noise and reverberation.
A number of studies have assessed the potential impacts of environmental sound on belugas. These have involved determination of when the level of a particular sound impacted hearing by producing a temporary rise in hearing threshold.
Beluga whales seem to have a parasite called Pharurus pallasii, thought to infect the hearing organs. However, it is not known if this parasite is harmful to the beluga.
Sources: (AMMPA, 2014, 2017; Lentfer, 1988; Moore, Pawloski, & Dankiewicz, 1995; Ridgway, et al, 2001; Schlundt, Finneran, Carder, & Ridgway, 2000; Suydam, Lowry, Frost, O’Corry-Crowe, & Pikok, 2001; Williams, 2002)
Image: Sheila Sund
Unlike other cetaceans that continuously replace skin, beluga whales undergo an annual epidermal molt and rub in estuaries to remove old skin and become more hydrodynamic.
Beluga whales are unique among cetaceans as they undergo an annual molt. Typically, growth and replacement of the epidermis, or outer layer of skin, of cetaceans is a continuous process. In belugas, though, it is a cyclical process that may be driven by their seasonal migrations between frigid arctic oceans and relatively warm estuarine waters.
Given the dramatic change in habitat a beluga undergoes when entering an estuary, the molting process may be controlled by environmental cues such as temperature and salinity. By molting, belugas remove the thick surface layer of the skin that may increase the resistance to the smooth flow of water over the whale. After the molt, the flow of water over the beluga’s skin would be smoother, which would make them more hydrodynamic.
Beluga rubbing, tied to the seasonal epidermal molt, is frequently observed in estuaries. The completion of the molting process may be the most important reason for the belugas’ migration into estuaries.
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