Abstract: Contact is a common component of social interactions in mammals, including marine mammals. However, the role of contact in social interactions by white whales, or belugas (Delphinapterus leucas), is virtually unknown. The current study was conducted to investigate the rate of physical contact between belugas compared to the rate at which belugas contact objects based on observations of eight belugas of various ages in human care. The frequency, duration, initiator, receiver, and body parts involved were recorded using focal follows 2 to 3 d a week in three seasons: (1) summer, (2) fall, and (3) spring. When examined as a group, contact between belugas occurred rarely (0.02 contact events/min; N = 57 contact events). The majority of the contact events were of short duration and were exhibited during affiliative social interactions between young belugas. Only two contact events occurred between adult or juvenile belugas. No seasonal effects were observed for contact between belugas. Belugas contacted objects much more frequently than other whales at an average rate of 0.68 events/min across two seasons. These results suggest that belugas in human care seek physical contact, but perhaps not with each other, unless it is during a critical period of development such as during the development of relationships for young belugas whether it is with their mother or with another young conspecific. Additional research is needed to verify these patterns of contact in belugas across different environments.
Key Words: beluga, Delphinapterus leucas, calf, contact, object contact, social interactions, whale
Document Type: Research Article
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1578/AM.42.3.2016.277
Page Numbers: 277-291

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