Beluga Whale: Sensory Survivor?

1024 682 Roddy Carter

I was privileged to meet with a pod of Beluga Whales last week, up-close and personal. That’s just the way this social species likes it. It got me thinking about their highly evolved communication system, and as always, I wondered if there is something we humans can learn from them.

The Beluga is a highly gregarious cetacean distributed throughout seasonally covered arctic and sub-arctic waters. Otherwise known as white whales, the Beluga is easily recognized by their white color. They are smaller whales, ranging between 4 and 6 meters in length, making them look somewhat like their dolphin relatives. They have no dorsal fin and a distinctive protuberance at the front of their head called the melon that houses their organ of echolocation.

Belugas typically live together in small social groups known as pods. They are highly tactile and actively seek out physical contact with other Beluga’s as part of their dense interpersonal repertoire. Several anatomical and physiological adaptations support their social nature. Their sensory systems are advanced and enable a rich range of communication. Extensive vocalization evoked the endearing moniker “sea canary”. Their language consists of a diverse array of clicks and whistles, and they are well known to mimic other sounds.

Interestingly, unlike other cetaceans the Beluga’s cervical vertebrae are not fused, allowing them to enjoy significant neck mobility. One hypothesis is that this extra flexibility enables the rich social interdependence of this species. Combined with their curious facial expressions and sensitive eyes (both anthropomorphic inferences, I admit), this completes the entirely affable appearance of these beautiful creatures.

In order to support their social interactions, the Beluga has evolved a keen sense of hearing. They have tiny external ear openings that lead into small ear canals and eardrums. There is debate over the functionality of this apparatus. Most sound reception takes place through the fat-filled lower jawbone and the surrounding soft tissue. These structures receive sound and conduct it to the middle and inner ear. From here, impulses travel up the auditory nerve to the highly evolved auditory cortex in the brain. A Beluga Whale can hear a broad range of sounds. Whereas humans hear sound with a frequency from 1 to 20kHz, Belugas can hear as high as 120kHz, giving them vast superiority at the highest pitches.

Scientists postulate that noise pollution has seriously threatened wild populations. Given their exquisite auditory sensitivity, the noise that we pour into the ocean is thought to interfere with the Beluga’s hearing and significantly impair their rich social and predatory foundations.

This provoked two speculative questions in my mind; one for humans and one for the Beluga.

First, I wondered what we could learn from this 35 million year old species. We have highly evolved communication skills, especially with the very recent (in evolutionary terms) arrival of a plethora of social media. What started with a clunky email system is now a crowded maze of cellular and digital social media. We now have to sift through a million messages a day from radio, TV, newspapers, regular mail, email, phone calls, text messages, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine, SnapChat and a host of other emerging communication platforms. Our next evolutionary challenge is clearly to find a way to process this avalanche of noise, distilling the messages that are important or interesting to us. Is it possible that we, like the Beluga that is being deafened towards extinction, could face a similarly bleak future if we don’t get it right?

Then my question for the Beluga. With your highly developed cerebral cortex, how is it that you have not been able to process the auditory deluge we have dumped into your ocean? Why are you unable to block polluting noises to focus on important Beluga voices that drive the health of your species?

Perhaps your reflection on this beautiful species and its evolutionary dilemma will provoke valuable thoughts for your own life? In the meantime, I hope you will join me in my fascination for this affable creature, and help us to preserve the biodiversity required to keep our world rich and interesting. In the meantime, I’m sure you will share my jealousy towards the Beluga who sleeps with only one cerebral cortex at a time. The thought of keeping half my brain awake at all times is enticing. I would double the amount of work I could do; and I’m sure my daughter would love to double her Netflix exposure.

Have fun,

Roddy

(Roddy Carter is an executive consultant who uses nature to provide analogues for human organizational structure and function. Through the BioSimilar Programs he helps organizations select and learn from a species or environment that closely resembles their own circumstances. This is a fun way to build and implement strategy and to enhance performance. Please reach out through the connect tab at Body-Corporate.org if you’d like to explore a BioSimilar Program in your organization.)

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