Beluga whales blow an average of almost one bubble per second, according to a new study, and if that's not impressive enough, these bubbles appear to have a deeper meaning. Similar to how humans express mood through facial expressions, beluga whales might be expressing something moody with their blowholes.
The eight year study conducted at Marineland of Canada tracked some 11,000 "bubbling events" in an effort to determine why these renowned bubblers blow bubbles in the first place, and furthermore if the different types of bubbles hold any bearing on a beluga's mood.
"They spend a great deal of time and energy on bubbling," Canisius College Professor of Animal Behavior Michael Noonan, who led the study, told Fusion about the whales. "So if the animals themselves were so into this behavior, it made sense for my team to investigate it."
Otherwise known as 'white whales', belugas have rounded heads and lack a dorsal fin. At 13 to 20 feet in length, they are smallish whales that travel in small groups of 10 or so known as pods. According to National Geographic, belugas are "very vocal communicators that employ a diversified language of clicks, whistles, and clangs." This list may now need to include bubbles.
While the study also looked into other beluga behaviors, Noonan said the degree to which belugas play with bubbles was one of the most surprising findings. According to Elizabeth George, a member of Noonan's research team, the fact that beluga's deliberately release air underwater is counterintuitive “since the very lives of marine mammals depend on maintaining enough oxygen in their blood while underwater."
“Therefore, the objective of our study was to determine the reason (or reasons) belugas blow bubbles," she said in a statement.
Noonan and his team determined that more than 97% of all beluga bubbles fall into four "source-shape" categories: blowhole drips, blowhole bursts, blowhole streams and mouth rings. The study was then able to correlate each bubble variety with a type of mood the animals experience. Around 90% of the bubbles originated from the whales' blowholes with the rest emerging from their mouths.
If a beluga whale is producing a blowhole drip or a mouth ring, it is probably being playful in nature, according to Noonon and his team, which found that female belugas appeared to be more playful than the males.
Alternatively, blowhole bursts indicate a startled response, which is reactive and found primarily in juvenile males that “reflects a rowdier level of play bouts in younger males than females," according to Noonan. Finally blowhole streams, already a known sign of aggression in humpback whales, were found to be most commonly produced by male belugas, although "overt" aggression was only rarely observed in the study.
“More typically, we saw Belugas produce blowhole streams when two whales were parallel swimming in an amicable fashion," said Noonan.
When not bubbling around, belugas communicate like any other whale—with acoustic signals.
"Also note that the act of underwater bubbling is not unique to belugas," said Noonan. "It is clear enough that it also occurs in many other species of whale—maybe in all of them. Belugas might be distinguished as being at the extreme end in terms the frequency of bubbling."
However, even prolific bubbling belugas have "bubble days and non-bubble days," according to the study. While it was unclear what exactly determined these swings in bubbles, the researchers speculate that weather or other environmental variables could be an influence. There could also be a "contagious effect" at play in which one beluga's bubbling stimulates or facilitates another, and then another, to blow a bubble.
Noonan said the while the study helps us understand "an important dimension of the behavior of a truly delightful species" he'd still like to get more definitive evidence for the significance of each bubble type.
Judging by this "Amazing Animals" video of belugas playing around, including blowing bubbles on cue, they sure do seem delightful.