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Beluga Whales Tracked During Hunting to Reveal Never-Before-Seen Foraging Patterns

First Posted: Feb 14, 2016 10:19 AM EST

Scientists may have learned a bit more about beluga whales. They've tracked two distinct populations of these whales from the Bering Sea to the Beaufort and Chukchi seas to learn a bit more about their habits.

In this latest study, the researchers drew upon a rare dataset that spanned 15 years of diver information for 30 whales to produce a comprehensive analysis of beluga migration and feeding patterns in the Arctic.

Beginning in 1993, the researchers worked with Alaska Native communities in Northwest Alaska and Aboriginal tribes in Canada to tag beluga whales. The whales often swim close to shore in early summer, which makes it possible to capture a whale and attach a satellite-linked tag.

In addition to looking at the distribution of whales, the researchers also looked at the distribution of Arctic cod, which is a primary food source for both beluga populations. The scientists then compared the data to the locations and depths where the whales dove. In the end, the researchers found that the whales most frequently dove to depths where Arctic cod congregated, confirming that the fish are a significant source of food for the belugas. Whales will also dive to depths that maximize their encounters with prey.

"This study gives us a benchmark of the distribution and foraging patterns for these two beluga populations," said donna Hauser, one of the researchers, in a news release. "However, there still needs to be additional work to see how beluga behavior has changed in concert with changing sea ice conditions in the Arctic."

The findings are published in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series.

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