A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Smart, Chatty and Chirpy – and That’s Their Problem

Barnum & Belugas

The captivity industry’s assault on the world’s cutest whales.

Believing in Belugas
From ancient mythology to modern reality.

How the Beluga Business Began
When P.T. Barnum first put belugas on show.

My Life with the Belugas
A former trainer at SeaWorld talks about what it’s like for belugas in captivity.

Smart, Chatty and Chirpy – and That’s Their Problem
A neuroscientist talks about the brains and smarts of belugas.

Visiting with Belugas in the Wild
A scientist meets some solitary dolphins who want to make friends with tourists. That’s not a good idea!

The Legal and Moral Issues
If the Georgia Aquarium gains the permit it seeks, it will open the door to a flood of captures from the wild.

What You Can Do

Contact Information for the Georgia Aquarium.

Questions for the Georgia Aquarium and the NMFS.

Notes and Talking Points for letters, e-mails, phone calls and general discussion


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(Fifth in our series about beluga whales in captivity.)

They’re cute, charming, chatty, curious and all-round delightful. And that’s their problem – it makes them prime targets of the captivity industry that can make money by putting them on show.

Lori Marino, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist who specializes in the cognitive abilities of whales and dolphins, elephants, primates and other animals. She is the founder and Executive Director of The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy. We talked with her about belugas.

Earth in Transition: We’ve heard scientists talking about belugas as the canaries of the cetacean world.Dr. Lori Marino: They’re always chatting, and they’re always singing. They make beautiful sounds, and they’re very sophisticated when it comes to their communication channels among one another? They have this incredibly sophisticated, sound-producing communication system.

You can compare them to other marine mammals in this video:

E.T.: What makes them so chatty and chirpy?

L.M.: Most likely it has something to do with the fact that they have such social lives in their large groups. They mainly live in areas where there’s pack ice and where one or more of the group can sometimes get trapped. So they’d need to be able to communicate with each other about all the features of the ice that they’re dealing with.

The fact is we know very little about their whole communication system, but it seems to be very elaborate.

E.T.: How smart is a beluga?

L.M.: Very smart. When I studied the brain of a beluga whale who had died of natural causes, I found that the brain is just as complex as other cetacean brains. They have a highly convoluted neocortex – the part that’s involved in all the brain’s higher functions. It’s an evolutionarily recent part of the brain. It’s what you see when you look at the outside of the brain – that whole outer wrinkly layer. If you were to unfold it, it would be a long thin sheet. The more folds there are, the more surface area there is for the brain to work with.

beluga brain

One way we measure the intelligence of animals is by the ratio of their brain size to their body size. We call that the EQ or encephalization quotient. The EQ of a beluga is roughly 2.5, which means that their brain is two and a half times as big as is normal for an animal their size. It’s about the same as you find with a chimpanzee. Bottlenose dolphins have an EQ above 3 but belugas are quite large, so that doesn’t necessarily reflect how elaborated the brain is. Overall, they just have very large brains for their body size.

E.T.: What else is distinguishing about them?

L.M.: As well as being intelligent, they have a very sweet nature. That’s probably because they’re so social and they have to look out for each other. They’re not top predators. They’re just more laid back. They’re very alert and playful, but they’re not as “zippy” as dolphins. Dolphins are kind of over-the-top. Belugas are thoughtful. They have a good attention span and they’re very engaging.

They’re very alert and playful, but they’re not as “zippy” as dolphins. Dolphins are kind of over-the-top. Belugas are thoughtful.E.T.: All of which makes them prime targets for the captivity industry.

L.M.: Exactly. When they’re in marine zoos, they come up to the underwater windows and are interested in what’s going on on the other side of the glass. And their faces are so full of expression that people become mesmerized by them. They’re able to captivate people in a way that’s unique. But this is very unfortunate because it was all designed to enable them to communicate with each other in the wild, not with humans when they’re in captivity.

E.T.: We heard about Wilma, an orphan beluga off the coast of Nova Scotia, who’d learned to mimic the sounds of boat propellers and people calling out her name.

L.M.: Yes, and there’s another well-known example of that. At the New York Aquarium on Coney Island there were belugas – some of them are now at the Georgia Aquarium. And they were held in a tank that was very close to the elevated subway. And some of them would make the sounds of the elevated train. They were mimicking environmental sounds.

E.T.: Why do they do that?

L.M.: It’s play, it’s something interesting, it’s part of their way of communicating and engaging with their whole environment. It’s no different really from what human babies do – how they learn the language they get from their mother. They’re vocal learners, just like humans. When they’re learning to communicate with their own species, that depends on mimicking. Dolphins go through a period of babbling, just like human babies, so I wouldn’t be surprised if belugas do that too.

Whales can’t do consonants, but they certainly understand rhythm and emphasis and cadence, so if I say “Wi-i-lma-a-a” in a sing song voice, she’s going to come back with “iii-aaa” in a sing song voice. They’ll mimic every element of the sound except the consonants.

E.T.: What else do we know about them?

L.M.: The really important thing is that there’s an awful lot we just don’t know about them. So when you think about it, when you take animals we just don’t know and put them in an unnatural setting, you’re going to know very little about them, and that puts them at the mercy of everything we do to them in captivity. At least with lions or giraffes, we know quite a lot about them from seeing them in the wild. But with belugas we know practically nothing. The captivity industry is always trying to breed more belugas for their collections, but it doesn’t have a clue how to keep the babies alive.

Just for starters, the captivity industry is always trying to breed more belugas for their collections, but it doesn’t have a clue how to keep the babies alive. When the most recent baby was born was at the Georgia Aquarium, the staff there all just jumped in the tank, about a dozen of them, and I’m convinced that that was a huge mistake. They wanted to help but it’s all so artificial. The mother was probably freaking out. And the baby died a few days later

E.T.: And there was the baby at Marineland who was killed by two adult males.

L.M.: That’s another case of the people not knowing what they’re doing. I mean you just don’t put two males in with a baby. You don’t do that with anyspecies. Young males are rough, they want to assert themselves, and babies are vulnerable and it’s pretty clear that the zoo staff threw her in there and the mother couldn’t protect her.

In the wild that would never happen. The babies would be embedded in a social network with mothers, aunts, sisters, all watching out for her. But in this situation you have two males who are already very frustrated because they’re in a tank with lots of pent-up energy, and suddenly they have the ability to take it out on this little baby, and it’s obvious what’s going to happen.

E.T.: You wouldn’t put a bunch of angry unsocialized boys in a room with an infant human, either.

L.M.: Exactly. And the same thing would happen with elephants, chimpanzees, so many.

E.T.: Why would they be so dumb?

L.M.: They really don’t know anything about the animals they’re keeping, and they don’t bother to learn anything about them in the wild. And they have this attitude that they’re all interchangeable, and they have no appreciation of their social relationships. It’s so dumb it’s hard to imagine anyone making that mistake. It’s a profound lack of interest in expending any effort to find out what these animals need.