Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus) - Wiki
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[Photo] Bowhead Whales (Balaena mysticetus). Photo from www.noaa.gov
The Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus), also known as Greenland Right Whale or Arctic Whale, is a baleen whale of the right whale family Balaenidae. A stocky dark-coloured whale without a dorsal fin, it can grow to 20 metres (66 ft) in length. The Bowhead spends all of its life in fertile Arctic waters, unlike other whales that migrate for feeding or reproduction.
The Bowhead was an early target for the whaling industry, and its population was severely depleted before a whaling moratorium was introduced in 1966. The population is estimated to be around 9,000 worldwide, down from an estimated 50,000 before the commencement of whaling.
The Bowhead Whale was described by Carolus Linnaeus in the 10th edition of his Systema Naturae (1758). Balaena has remained a monotypic genus ever since. Leiobalaena, described by Eschricht in 1849, is a junior synonym.
The Bowhead Whale is an individual species, separate from the other right whales. It has always been recognized as such, and stands alone in its own genus as it has done since the work of Gray in 1821. There is, however, little genetic evidence to support this two-genera view. Indeed, scientists see greater differences between the members of Balaenoptera than between the Bowhead and the right whales. Thus, it is likely that all four species will be placed in one genus in some future review.
It is thought that Balaena prisca, one of the five Balaena fossils from the late Miocene (~10 mya) to early Pleistocene (~1.5 mya), may be the same as the modern Bowhead Whale. Prior to these there is a long gap back to the next related cetacean in the fossil record, Morenocetus, which was found in a South American deposit dating back 23 million years.
Bowhead Whales are robust-bodied, dark-coloured animals with no dorsal fin and a strongly bowed lower jaw and narrow upper jaw. The baleen plates, exceeding three meters and the longest of the baleen whales, are used to strain tiny prey from the water. The whales have massive bony skulls which they use to break from beneath the ice to breathe. Some Inuit hunters have reported whales surfacing through 60 cm (2 ft) of ice in this method. Bowheads may reach lengths of up to 20 metres and females are larger than males. The blubber layer of whale flesh is thicker than in any other animal, averaging 43???50 cm (17???20 in).
Bowhead Whales are the only baleen whales that spend their entire lives in and around Arctic waters. Those found off Alaska spend the winter months in the southwestern Bering Sea. They migrate northward in the spring, following openings in the pack ice, into the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, hunting zooplankton such as copepods. Bowheads are slow swimmers and usually travel alone or in small herds of up to six animals. Although they may stay below the water surface for as long as forty minutes in a single dive, they are not thought to be deep divers.
Reproduction and lifespan
Bowhead Whales are highly vocal and use underwater sounds to communicate while traveling, feeding, and socializing. Some Bowheads make long repetitive songs that may be mating displays. The whales' behaviour can also include breaching, tail slapping, and spy-hopping. Sexual activity occurs between pairs and in boisterous groups of several males and one or two females.
Breeding has been observed from March through August; conception is believed to occur primarily in March. Reproduction can begin when a whale is 10 to 15 years old. Females produce a calf once every 3 to 4 years, after a 13 to 14 month pregnancy. The newborn calf is about 4.5 m (15 ft) long and approximately 1000 kg (2,200 lb), growing to 9 m (30 ft) by its first birthday.
The lifespan of a Bowhead was once thought to be 60 to 70 years, similar to other whales. However, discoveries of antique ivory spear points in living whales in 1993, 1995, 1999 and 2007 have triggered further research based on structures in the whale's eye, leading to the reliable conclusion that at least some individuals have lived to be 150???200 years old (another report has said a female at the age of 90 was allegedly still reproductive).
In May of 2007, a 50 ton specimen caught and harvested off the Alaskan coast was discovered to have the head of an explosive harpoon embedded deep under the blubber of its neck. Examination determined the 3 1/2 inch arrow-shaped projectile was manufactured in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a major whaling center, around 1890. This proof that it survived a similar hunt more than a century ago indicated to researchers that the whale's age was between 115 and 130 years old.
Because of their possible lifespan, female Bowhead Whales are believed to go through menopause. Observations of very large animals without calves support this hypothesis.
Bowhead Whales have been hunted for their blubber, meat, oil, bones and baleen. They are closely related to the right whale and share with it the hunting-ideal characteristics of slow swimming and floating after death. Before commercial whaling, there were over 50,000 Bowhead Whales in the north polar region (estimated). Commercial whaling began in the 16th century, when the Basques hunted bowhead whales migrating south through the Strait of Belle Ise in the fall and early winter. In 1611 the first whaling expedition was sent to Spitsbergen, and by mid-century the population(s) there had practically been wiped out, forcing whalers to began voyaging into the "West Ice"- the pack ice off the east coast of Greenland. By 1719 whalers had reached the Davis Strait, and by the first quarter of the 19th century Baffin Bay. In the North Pacific, the commercial whaling began in the 1840s, and within two decades over 60 percent of the Bowhead Whale population had been wiped out.
Commercial whaling, the principal cause of the population decline, has been discontinued. The population off Alaska has increased since commercial whaling ceased. Alaska Natives continue to kill small numbers of Bowhead Whales in subsistence hunts each year. This level of killing (25???40 animals annually) is not expected to affect the population's recovery. The Bowhead Whale population off Alaska's coast (also called the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort stock) appears to be recovering but remains at about 7,800 animals (1990), roughly 41 percent of the pre-whaling population. The status of the other Bowhead populations is less well known. These stocks are thought to be very small, probably in the low hundreds, for a possible worldwide population of 8,000???9,200 individuals.
The Bowhead is listed in Appendix I by CITES (that is, "threatened with extinction"). It is listed as endangered under the auspices of the United States' Endangered Species Act. The IUCN Red List data is as follows:
Spitzbergen population - Critically endangered
Sea of Okhotsk subpopulation - Endangered
Baffin Bay-Davis Strait stock - Endangered
Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin stock - Vulnerable
Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort stock - Lower risk - conservation dependent
Behaviour and predators
Bowheads are social and nonaggressive, and will retreat under the ice when threatened. Their only predators are humans and orcas.
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