Scientists discuss beluga whale behaviour, research and management

Scientists discuss beluga whale behaviour, research and management

20 December 2016

On 19 December 2016, the Arkhe Cultural and Educational Centre in Moscow held a screening of the Talking with Beluga Whales popular science film directed by biologist and TV host Dr Ivan Zatevakhin. The 60-minute film was screened at the Modern Science Film Festival and focused on acoustic communication between beluga whales, one of the most intelligent marine mammals in the world.


During a discussion after the film, Dr Yury Starodubtsev, a biologist and leading research fellow at the Department of Higher Nervous Activity, Biology Faculty of Lomonosov Moscow State University, said that the research on dolphin behaviour first started in Russia in 1966. An oceanarium of the Soviet Navy was built for studying simple and complex behavioural skills in these animals, their rational activity, intelligence and the possibility of using dolphins as human assistants at sea. “We were solving problems of how to use these animals and train them for the benefit of people,” he said. According to Starodubtsev, the research objectives, including those that help working with the animals in captivity, were successfully met.


Speaking about the current study of dolphins and beluga whales in their natural habitat, Alexander Agafonov of the marine mammal lab at the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, an expert in sea mammal acoustic communication who consulted on Talking with Beluga Whales, noted that dolphins and beluga whales are social animals and that they prefer collective activity such as searching for fish and hunting when they exchange signals, which is called acoustic signalling. He believes that this ‘speech’ is the very indicator of their highly advanced intelligence without which speech would never develop.


Other participants in the discussion included Lev Mukhametov, PhD (Biology), senior research fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, marine mammal expert and head of the Beluga-White Whale programme; Tatyana Denisenko, PhD (Biology), Associate Professor at the Skryabin Moscow Veterinary Academy’s Department of Microbiology; Grigory Tsidulko, zoologist, former sea mammal trainer and member of the IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group; and others.


Talking with Beluga Whales was filmed over the summer of 2014 at the Solovetsky Islands with the support of the Russian Geographical Society. The film used the footage taken during a research expedition of the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology to the Solovetsky Islands, including aerial and underwater filming of the White Sea.