A smooth back with no dorsal fin, a blowhole placed in a high crown at the top of the head, and a thick layer of blubber for insulation equip them for this icy environment.
Bowheads skim-feed tiny crustaceans. A whale draws a huge amount of water into its mouth, then raises its tongue, which forces the water back out through baleen filters. The tongue then sweeps the trapped food back toward the throat. The diet consists of planktonic crustaceans, which are filtered through the baleen plates. Bowhead whales often skim-feed on the surface of the sea but also gather food from the sea floor.
Bowheads are social animals, and communicate through long-distance vocalizations, some carrying five to ten kilometres. Males become involved in showy bouts of breaching and fluke-slapping, probably because they are competing with one another for access to females. Bowheads are slow breeders, and sexual maturity may not be reached for 20 years. A single calf is born every three or four years after a gestation period of about 13 months.
Mammal Species of the World
More images, video and sound
Bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) once inhabited oceans throughout the northern hemisphere. Over the last hundred years the population of bowhead whales has been greatly reduced into five geographically secluded stocks. These stocks are: the Spitsbergen stock, which inhabit the north Atlantic; the Davis Strait and Hudson Bay stocks, which both inhabit the west-northern Atlantic; the Okhotsk stock, which are found in the Okhotsk Sea; and Bering Sea stock, found in the area of the Bering Sea (Shelden and Rugh 1995). Bowhead whales inhabit the Arctic Ocean and associated seas. They are rarely found below 45 degrees north latitude (Nowak 1999).
Biogeographic Regions: arctic ocean (Native ); atlantic ocean (Native ); pacific ocean (Native )
- Nowak, R. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World, 6th ed. Volume II. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press..
- Shelden, K., D. Rugh. 1995. The Bowhead Whale, Balaena mysticetus: Its Historic and Current Status. Marine Fisheries Review, 57 (3/4): 1-20.
The International Whaling Commission recognises five stocks: Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas (US (Alaska), Canada, and Russian Federation); Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin (Canada); Davis Strait-Baffin Bay (Denmark (Greenland) and Canada); Svalbard-Barents Sea (Spitsbergen) (Denmark (Greenland), Norway, and Russian Federation); and the Okhotsk Sea (Russian Federation and Japan) (Rugh et al. 2003).
The Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas stock occurs from Chaunskaya Guba (Russian Federation) in the western Chukchi Sea east to Amundsen Gulf (Canada), and the northern Bering Sea south to Karaginskiy Zaliv (Russian Federation), St. Matthew Island, and Norton Sound (US (Alaska)) (Rice 1998).
Recent evidence of movements of tagged whales indicating overlapping ranges, and inconclusive analyses of genetic differences, have called into doubt the traditional distinction between the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin and the Davis Strait-Baffin Bay stocks (Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2006, IWC 2007).
The range of the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin stock was traditionally taken to include northern Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait, Foxe Channel and Foxe Basin. Tracking of satellite-tagged whales in 2002 and 2003 confirm movement from Foxe Basin through Fury and Hecla Strait into the Gulf of Boothia and Prince Regent Inlet (Cosens 2004).
The Baffin Bay-Davis Strait stock is centred in summer in the eastern Canadian High Arctic archipelago and along eastern Baffin Island. The whales move out of the summering areas as ice forms in autumn to wintering areas in polynyas (Holst and Stirling 1999), unconsolidated pack ice, and open water near the ice edge off West Greenland (Reeves and Heide-Jørgensen 1996) and eastern Baffin Island. The summering grounds include Cumberland Sound, the well-studied late summer and autumn feeding ground in Isabella Bay (Finley 1990), Lancaster Sound, Admiralty Inlet, and Eclipse Sound.
Animals satellite-tagged in Cumberland Sound in southeast Baffin Island in 2004 and 2005 moved into Prince Regent Inlet and the Gulf of Boothia and also into Foxe Basin and the Hudson Strait (Dueck et al. 2006). Animals tagged in West Greenland also moved to Prince Regent Inlet and Hudson Strait. There is thus no clear geographical division between the two putative stocks. The genetic evidence is inconclusive, and the IWC Scientific Committee currently regards the stock identity question as open (IWC 2007).
The Svalbard-Barents Sea (Spitsbergen) stock (see separate listing) occurs from the east coast of Greenland across the Greenland Sea, the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea as far as Severnaya Zemlya (Russian Federation), and as far south as the ice front, exceptionally reaching Iceland and the coast of Finnmark (Norway).
The Okhotsk Sea stock (see separate listing) occurs in the Sea of Okhotsk from Shantarskiye Zaliv east to Zaliv Shelikova, Gizhiginskaya Guba and Penzhinskaya Guba (Moore and Reeves 1993, Rice 1998).
The range map shows where the species may occur based on oceanography. The species has not been recorded for all the states within the hypothetical range as shown on the map. States for which confirmed records of the species exist are included in the list of native range states. States within the hypothetical range but for which no confirmed records exist are included in the Presence Uncertain list.
occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Year-round
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Year-round
Global Range: (>2,500,000 square km (greater than 1,000,000 square miles)) Arctic and subarctic waters between 55 and 80 degrees N. Fi ve apparently discrete populations. 1. Western arctic group winters along pack ice in Bering Sea, summers in Beaufort Sea, mainly east of Barrow to Amundsen Gulf (IUCN 1991). 2. Davis Strait population: summer along the east and north coasts of Baffin Island, in Baffin Bay, and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago; winter in the Daviis Strait (Moore and Reeves 1993, Finley 2000). 3. Hudson Bay population: summer in northwestern Hudson Bay, northern Foxe Basin; winter in Hudson Strait and Davis Strait (Finley 2000). 4. Spitsbergen population (Svalbard-Barents Sea): east coast of Greenland, Iceland, and Jan Mayen area in winter; mostly between Greenland, Spitsbergen, and the Barents Sea, north to 80 degrees N in summer). 5. Sea of Okhotsk.
Oceanic (north latitudes only)
Balaena mysticetus is the second largest whale in the world, second only to the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) . The name "bowhead" comes from their bow-shaped mouth. The lower jaw makes a U-shape around the upper jaw. This lower jaw is usually marked with white spots, contrasting with the rest of the whale's black body (Nowak 1999). Baleen in the bowhead whale's mouth is the largest of any cetacean with 300 baleen plates measuring 300-450 centimeters in vertical length. The skull makes up almost one-third of the total body length, is curved and asymetric (Lanier 1998). Bowhead whales, on average, are sixty feet in length and weigh around 100 tons. Contributing to the whale's mass is a two foot thick layer of insulating blubber (Nicklen 2000). Balaena mysticetus also has a small pectoral fin for its size, less than 200 centimeters in length (Nowak 1999). Bowhead whale females measure between 16 and 18 meters in length, males measure between 14 and 17 meters in length. Bowhead whales weigh from 75,000 to 100,000 kg.
Range mass: 75000 to 100000 kg.
Range length: 14 to 18 m.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: female larger
- Lanier, K. 1998. Legends of the Sea. Christian Science Monitor, 90(199): 16.
- Nicklen, P. 2000. Into the Sea With Giants.. International Wildlife, 30(3): 48..
Length: 2000 cm
Weight: 1.0E8 grams
Size in North America
Range: 14-17 m males; 16-18 m females
Range: 7,500-10,000 kg
Balaena mysticetus lives in the colder waters of the northern hemisphere. Of the current total population, approximately 700 are found in the north Atlantic while 7,000 are located in the north Pacific. Balaena mysticetus usually follow the receding ice drifts (Shelden and Rugh 1995). During summer they can be found in bays, straits, and estuaries (Nowak 1999).
Average depth: 100 m.
Habitat Regions: polar ; saltwater or marine
Aquatic Biomes: coastal
Habitat and Ecology
Small to medium-sized crustaceans, especially krill and copepods, form the bulk of the Bowhead's diet (Lowry et al. 2004). They also feed on mysids and gammarid amphipods, and the diet includes at least 60 species. Bowheads skim feed at the surface and feed in the water column. It has recently been suggested that they also feed near the bottom, but probably do not directly ingest sediments as Gray Whales routinely do.
Habitat Type: Marine
Comments: Favors close packs and patches of ice; not often observed in extensive areas of open water (Ellis 1985). Adept at finding and using open crevices (leads) in ice, even if these are far from usual migration routes (IUCN 1991).
Non-Migrant: No. All populations of this species make significant seasonal migrations.
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).
Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.
Migrates between northern summer range and southern winter range. Moves north as ice cover breaks up, south just before ice forms in fall (Leatherwood and Reeves 1983).
Western Arctic (summarized in DeMaster et al. 2000): From April through June, Bowheads migrate north and east, following leads in the sea ice in the eastern Chukchi Sea until they pass Point Barrow where they travel east toward the southeastern Beaufort Sea. During early fall (early September to mid-October), bowheads migrate west out of the Beaufort Sea. From mid-September to mid-October they are seen in the northeast Chukchi Sea, some as far north as latitude 72|N; when they reach the Siberian coast, they follow it southeast to the Bering Strait. They begin passing Cape Netten on the Chukchi Peninsula in mid-October to mid-November. By late October and November they arrive in the Bering Sea, where they overwinter.
Eastern Arctic (Summarized in Finley 2000): Spring: Appear at the Cumberland Sound floe edge in April and May, reaching northern Baffin Bay and the Northwest Passage/Lancaster Sound in May and June. Historically, individuals migrating to Hudson Bay arrived off southwest Southampton Island in May and June, then moved north through Roes Welcome Sound and into Foxe Basin. They may also move directly from Hudson Strait into Foxe Basin, arriving at the Igloolik floe edge by late June. Autumn: Migration from north of 70 degrees N is a more casual affair, beginning in late August/September, and lasting two to three months. Migration past northeast Baffin Island peaks in late September/early October; they eventually reach Cumberland Sound (southeast Baffin Island) in late October/November. At Cape Hopes Advance in Hudson Strait, peak movement occurs in late November. In winter, they are generally found within the margin of pack ice fields and polynyas between 60 and 70 degrees N.
Balaena mysticetus is a baleen whale, which means that they filter water through baleen plates, feeding on the organisms caught in the plates and pushing the rest of the water out. Balaena mysticetus can sometimes feed opportunistically during the spring migration, but mostly feed during the winter months on their feeding grounds. They eat crustacean zooplankton, epibenthic organisms, and some benthic organisms. Crustacean zooplankton, such as copepods, are not important food sources for young B. mysticetus, but increase in importance with age (Shelden and Rugh 1995). Copepods are small crustaceans, which a bowhead whale can filter at approximately 50,000 per minute (Stover 2001). Balaena mysticetus sometimes form groups of up to fourteen individuals, in which they make a V-shape formation. In this formation they travel at the same speed and filter feed together (Nowak 1999).
Foods commonly eaten include: euphausiids, copepods, mysids, gammarid amphipods, other benthic organisms
Animal Foods: aquatic crustaceans; zooplankton
Foraging Behavior: filter-feeding
Primary Diet: carnivore (Eats non-insect arthropods); planktivore
Comments: Feeds primarily on swarms of small to medium zooplankton (euphausiids, amphipods, copepods, mysids, pteropods). Feeds by skimming at surface; also forages in water column and near or at bottom, at least in shallows. (Leatherwood and Reeves 1983).
Barnacles use B. mysticetus as both a mode of transportation and a way to encounter fresh food supplies (Lanier 1998). Bowhead whales play an important role as predators of plankton in the arctic ocean.
- barnacle species
Bowhead whales are protected from predators by their large size. They are also known to take shelter under ice drifts. As the oceanic waters of the polar regions become frozen, bowhead whales will swim beneath the extending polar ice cap. In order to survive under the ice cap, B. mysticetus can break through the ice in order to breathe without making themselves accessible to other marine predators (Stover 2001). In a study in 1995, it was found that one-third of the animals of the Davis Strait stock showed scars from killer whale attacks (Shelden and Rugh 1995).
- killer whales (Orcinus orca)
- humans (Homo sapiens)
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Known prey organisms
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Number of Occurrences
Note: For many non-migratory species, occurrences are roughly equivalent to populations.
Estimated Number of Occurrences: 1 - 5
Comments: Only five discrete populations exist: the largest is that in the western Arctic (Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas); others are in the Davis Strait, Hudson Bay, Spitsbergen region (Svalbard-Barents Sea), and Sea of Okhotsk (DeMaster et al. 2000). There has been doubt that the Davis Strait and Hudson Bay stocks were actually separate populations, but genetic evidence shows that they are not only separate, but that the Hudson Bay stock is actually more closely related to the western Arctic population (Maiers et al. 1999). The small population in the Sea of Okhotsk may be separable into two groups: those that summer in the northeastern Okhotsk Sea and those that are found in the Shantarskiye region (DeMaster et al. 2000).
2500 - 100,000 individuals
Comments: Total population now on the order of 11,000-12,000, including nonbreeding individuals. In 2001, the western Arctic (Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort) population was estimated at about 10,000 (95% C.L. 7700-12,600) (George et al. 2002), and the other populations were estimated to be only in the tens or hundreds of individuals (DeMaster et al. 2000).
In the mid-1990s, total population size was 6000-9000 (D. DeMaster, pers. comm., 1995). The number of mature individuals would have been considerably fewer, probably 3000-6000. Earlier in the 1990s, the total population was estimated at 7,800 and increasing (Science 263:26, IUCN 1991).
Individual stock numbers: 1. Western Arctic: about 10,000 (see above). 2. Hudson Bay: unknown, but certainly under 1000 (IUCN 2000) and most likely in the 'low hundreds (Finley 2000); surveys in mid-1990s estimated about 250-280 in the northern Foxe Basin (Cosens et al. 1997) and about 75 and northwestern Hudson Bay (Cosens and Innes 2000), but these conclusions are disputed (Finley 2000). 3. Davis Strait: fewer than 250 breeding individuals (IUCN 2000); in the 'low hundreds (Finley 2000). 4. Spitsbergen: fewer than 100, probably fewer than 50 mature individuals (IUCN 2000). 5. Sea of Okhotsk: Berzin et al. (1990) estimated this population to be at least 250-300 animals., and Vladimirov (1994) estimated 300-400. However, both these estimates are not backed up by quantitative data (Berzin et al. 1995; Brownell et al. 1997).
Not strongly gregarious; usually travels alone or in groups of 6 or less, though larger aggregations may occur on feeding grounds or when ice restricts movements (Leatherwood and Reeves 1983).
Life History and Behavior
Perception Channels: tactile ; chemical
Balaena mysticetus has a remarkable lifespan. The average age of animals captured during whaling is estimated at 60 to 70 years old, based on examination of changes in the nucleus of the eye over time. However, several individuals have been discovered with ancient ivory and stone harpoon heads in their flesh and examination of their eye nucleus has resulted in estimated lifespans up to 200 years (George et al. 1999), making bowhead whales the longest lived mammalian species. There is little knowlege of diseases in B. mysticetus that would effect the average lifespan (Stover 2001).
Status: wild: 200 (high) years.
Status: wild: 0.01 to 0.02 years.
- Stover, D. 2001. Science and Technology: The Wisest Whale of the Sea. Popular Science, 258(4): 23.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Males attract female B. mysticetus through songs. It is unknown how long these pair bonds last or how many matings male bowhead whales take part in during mating season.
Mating in Balaena mysticetus usually occurs during late winter and early spring. Spring migration takes place soon after this and the female gives birth between April and June, with most births occurring in May. It takes twenty years for a Bowhead whale calf to reach sexual maturity. At this time, they can be between 12.3 and 14.2 m in length (Shelden and Rugh 1995). Females usually reach sexual maturity before males and are also 1 to 2 meters larger than males at this time (George et al. 1999). In some cases pseudohermaphroditism can occur, leaving a whale to appear female, but also having male sex organs (Shelden and Rugh 1995).
Breeding interval: Typical calving intervals are every 3 to 4 years in bowhead whales.
Breeding season: Breeding occurs in late winter to early spring.
Average number of offspring: 1.
Range gestation period: 12 to 16 months.
Average gestation period: 13-14 months.
Range weaning age: 9 to 15 months.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 20 years.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 20 years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; viviparous
Average birth mass: 900000 g.
Average number of offspring: 1.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
Sex: male: 9125 days.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
Sex: female: 9125 days.
When a calf is born, its average length is 4.25 to 5.25 m. Calves grow approximately 1.5 cm a day. The calf is fed with its mother's milk until it is weaned, which occurs between nine and fifteen months after birth. After weaning, growth rate decreases. After births occur, whales segregate into groups in order to migrate. Calves and mothers are in the front group. Perhaps this is to allow them to be the first to feed on food aggregations that are encountered. For the most part it seems that females take care of the young, although there have been some cases of Balaena mysticetus travelling in groups of three: a mature male, a mature female, and a calf (Shelden and Rugh 1995).
Parental Investment: precocial ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-independence (Protecting: Female)
- George, J., J. Bada, J. Zeh, L. Scott, S. Brown. 1999. Age and Growth Estimates of Bowhead Whales (*Balaena mysticetus*) Via Aspartic Acid Racemization. Canadian Journal of Zoology 77: 571-580.
- Shelden, K., D. Rugh. 1995. The Bowhead Whale, Balaena mysticetus: Its Historic and Current Status. Marine Fisheries Review, 57 (3/4): 1-20.
Gestation apparently lasts between one and two years. Most births (single calf) reportedly occur in spring or early summer (Leatherwood and Reeves 1983), with peak in May near Alaska; typical calving interval probably is 3-4 years (Rugh et al., 1992, J. Mamm. 73:487-490).
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Balaena mysticetus
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Balaena mysticetus
Public Records: 8
Specimens with Barcodes: 8
Species With Barcodes: 1
Primary conservation efforts for Balaena mysticetus involve reducing or ending the hunting of this species. Agencies who are playing parts in the conservation of the species are the Alaskan Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (Shelden and Rugh 1995). Native people have been allowed to take only one whale every two years (Nicklen 2000). Whale populations plummeted as a result of a huge expansion in the whaling industry from the 1600s to the early 1900s (Shelden and Rugh 1995).
US Migratory Bird Act: no special status
US Federal List: endangered
CITES: appendix i
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
- 1994Vulnerable(Groombridge 1994)
- 1990Vulnerable(IUCN 1990)
- 1988Endangered(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1988)
- 1986Endangered(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1986)
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: N3 - Vulnerable
Rounded National Status Rank: N2 - Imperiled
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G3 - Vulnerable
Reasons: Reduced more than 80 percent by commercial whaling in 18th and 19th centuries. Now numbers about 10,000-12,000 individuals in only five discrete populations. Western arctic population, the largest group, has has been increasing 1-3 percent annually in recent years; other populations much smaller and show no evidence of increase. Harvest regulations in place. Potentially threatened by global warming and loss of Arctic ice, and by marine pollution.
Intrinsic Vulnerability: Highly vulnerable
Comments: Species is slow to mature and has low fecundity, but can survive to a very old age.
Environmental Specificity: Unknown
Date Listed: 06/02/1970
Lead Region: National Marine Fisheries Service (Region 11)
Where Listed: Entire
Population location: Entire
Listing status: E
For most current information and documents related to the conservation status and management of Balaena mysticetus , see its USFWS Species Profile
The range-wide abundance is not known with precision but numbers over 10,000 individuals, with 10,500 (8,200–13,500) (in 2001) in the Bering- Chukchi-Beaufort Seas (Zeh and Punt 2005), and provisional estimates of 3,633 (1,382–9,550) (Koski et al. 2006) and 7,300 (3,100–16,900) for parts of the range of the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin and Baffin Bay-Davis Strait stocks (Cosens et al. 2006).
There are no reliable abundance estimates for the small Okhotsk Sea and Svalbard-Barents Sea (Spitsbergen) stocks (see separate listings).
The Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort (BCB) subpopulation has been monitored for more than 30 years and has been increasing over this period at an estimated rate of 3.4% (1.7–5%) per year in the presence of subsistence hunting (Zeh and Punt 2005). No quantitative estimates of trends in the other Bowhead populations are available, but Inuit hunters and elders report that they are observing more Bowheads in the eastern Canadian Arctic and West Greenland than they did in the 1960s–1970s, and that the geographic distribution of the whales has expanded in recent years (Koski et al. 2006).
No estimates of subpopulation trend are available for the Svalbard-Barents Sea (Spitsbergen) and Okhotsk Sea stocks (see separate listing).
Pre-whaling population sizes
All Bowhead subpopulations were severely depleted by commercial whaling, which had begun in the northeastern Atlantic by 1611 (Ross 1993). Basque whalers took Bowheads in the northwest Atlantic (Labrador in Canada) in the 16th century, but ambiguities over the species identity of whales taken in early commercial whaling make pre-1600 catch records difficult to interpret.
Minimum pre-whaling subpopulation sizes are estimated to have been 24,000 for the Svalbard-Barents Sea (Spitsbergen) stock, 12,000 for the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin and Baffin Bay-Davis Strait subpopulation(s), and 3,000 for the Okhotsk Sea stock (Woodby and Botkin 1993). Brandon and Wade (2004) estimate the initial abundance of the BCB subpopulation at 10–20,000.
The BCB stock may be approaching its pre-whaling levels (IWC 2005). The Svalbard-Barents Sea (Spitsbergen) and Okhotsk Sea stocks are each at a small fraction of their pre-whaling levels (see separate listings), while the status of the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin and Baffin Bay-Davis Strait animals relative to pre-whaling levels is unclear.
A high longevity (>100 years) is suggested by biochemical methods and the finding of old-fashioned stone harpoon heads in hunter-killed animals (George et al. 1999). If this high longevity is confirmed, it would be among the longest known for a mammal.
For the BCB subpopulation, an estimated 44% (SE 1%) of the total population consists of reproductively mature animals, given that the age at maturity is at least 20 years (Koksi et al. 2004). The calving interval is 3–4 years (Rugh et al. 1992). No specific data are available for other subpopulations.
Taylor et al. (2007) estimate the generation time for Bowhead Whales to be around 52 years.
Global Short Term Trend: Relatively stable to increase of 25%
Comments: Western arctic (Bering/Chukchi/Beaufort sea) population was increasing at 3.3 percent per year, 1978-2001 (IWC 1997, Shelden et al. 2003). Other, much smaller populations show no sign of increase (IUCN 2000, Finley 2000), although it is difficult to assess trend because of the paucity of sightings. Some populations may not be viable. A nursery aggregation observed in the Foxe Basin (Cosens and Blouw 1999) "is the most promising evidence that the Hudson Bay population is recovering" (Finley 2000).
Global Long Term Trend: Decline of 70-90%
Comments: Bowhead numbers were severely reduced by commercial whaling prior to the 20th century, probably on the order of 80 percent. Woodby and Botkin (1993) estimated a minimum total population prior to whaling of about 50,000; this subsequently declined to perhaps 5000 individuals. Western arctic population formerly 10,400-23,000 (Woodby and Botkin 1993), now about 10,000; Hudson Bay population formerly 580 (Woodby and Botkin 1993), now unknown size, but smaller than this (Finley 2000); Davis Strait population >11,700, now "almost certainly less than 5 %" of this number; Spitsbergen population about 24,000, now numbering only in the tens (Woodby and Botkin 1993); Sea of Okhotsk population 3000-6500, now probably in the low hundreds (Mitchell 1977, Ross 1993). Total population thus declined to fewer than 8,000 from roughly 50,000 initially.
Limited aboriginal subsistence whaling on the BCB stock (by native peoples of Alaska, and the Russian Federation (Chukotka) is permitted by the IWC on the basis of advice from its Scientific Committee (most recently under its new aboriginal subsistence whaling management procedure). These takes have not impeded the recovery of the stock. Very small takes by aboriginal hunters are allowed in Canadian waters. So far these have been too few to impede recovery of the stocks, but there will be pressure to increase take levels given the recent, higher population estimates in the eastern Canadian Arctic.
There has been concern since the 1970s that disturbance from oil and gas exploration and extraction activities in the Arctic region might affect Bowhead Whales. There is also evidence of incidental mortality and serious injury caused by entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes (Philo et al. 1992, 1993; Finley 2000). Environmental threats, such as pollution (Bratton et al. 1993) and disturbance from tourist traffic (Finley 2000), may affect Bowhead Whales but the impacts have not yet been well characterized or quantified.
During this century, a profound reduction in the extent of sea ice in the Arctic is expected, and possibly a complete disappearance in summer, as mean Arctic temperatures rise faster than the global average (Anonymous 2005). The implications of this for Bowhead Whales are unclear but warrant monitoring.
Degree of Threat: Very high - medium
Comments: All populations were seriously depleted by commerical whaling. Limited harvest by native peoples currently is not a significant threat to western Arctic population, but activities and possible oil spills associated with industrial/resource development are a concern (IUCN 1991). Potential loss of Arctic ice and other oceanographic changes through global warming may be a serious future threat.
Global Protection: Unknown whether any occurrences are appropriately protected and managed
Comments: See IUCN (1991) for a brief discussion of international and national protection measures.
Needs: Ensure that subsistence harvest does not interfere with recovery. Maintain high quality marine ecosystem.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
The only way in which Balaena mysticetus may interfere with humans is in marine fishing. The large bowhead whale has been known to collide with sailing vessels on rare occassions as well as get caught in nets fishing for other oceanic life (Shelden and Rugh 1995).
Balaena mysticetus is a benefit to the whaling industry. Because of their large size, one whale can bring a large bounty of whale meat, massive baleen, and the blubber for which it is primarily hunted. In fact, B. mysticetus is the most economically valuable of all cetaceans (Nowak 1999). Many native people such as Eskimos also depend on these resources for the survival of their communities economically by using baleen for tools, blubber for fuel, and whale meat for food and trade (Nicklen 1995).
Positive Impacts: food ; body parts are source of valuable material; ecotourism ; research and education
Comments: A traditional source of food for native arctic peoples; this use still allowed (though restricted, and for maintenance of cultural continuity) in Alaska by U.S. marine mammal laws; IWC set an annual aboriginal catch limit of 41 landed or 44 struck for the years 1989-1991 (IUCN 1991). Evidently a few are killed each year by Inuit in Canada and Asia (IUCN 1991).
IUCN Red List Category
IUCN Red List Category
IUCN Red List Category
IUCN Red List Category
The bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) is a species of the right whale family Balaenidae, in suborder Mysticeti and genus Balaena. A stocky dark-colored whale without a dorsal fin, it can grow to 20 m (66 ft) in length. This thick-bodied species can weigh 75 tonnes (74 long tons; 83 short tons) to 100 tonnes (98 long tons; 110 short tons). It lives entirely in fertile Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, unlike other whales that migrate to low latitude waters to feed or reproduce. It was also known as the Greenland right whale or Arctic whale. American whalemen called it the steeple-top, polar whale, or Russia or Russian whale. The bowhead has the largest mouth of any animal.
- 1 Taxonomy
- 2 Description
- 3 Life history
- 4 Ecology
- 5 Whaling
- 6 Conservation
- 7 See also
- 8 Gallery
- 9 References
- 10 External links
Carl Linnaeus first described this whale in the 10th edition of his Systema Naturae (1758). Seemingly identical to its cousins in the North Atlantic, North Pacific and Southern Oceans, they were all thought to be a single species, collectively known as the "right whale", and given the binomial name Balaena mysticetus.
Today, the bowhead whale occupies a monotypic genus, separate from the right whales, as was proposed by the work of John Edward Gray in 1821. For the next 180 years, the Balaenidae family was the subject of great taxonometric debate. Authorities have repeatedly recategorized the three populations of right whale plus the bowhead whale, as one, two, three or four species, either in a single genus or in two separate genera. Eventually, it was recognized that bowheads and right whales were in fact different, but there was still no strong consensus as to whether they shared a single genus or two. As recently as 1998, Dale Rice, in his comprehensive and otherwise authoritative classification, Marine mammals of the world: systematics and distribution, listed just two species: B. glacialis (the right whales) and B. mysticetus (the bowheads).
Studies in the 2000s finally provided clear evidence that the three living right whale species do comprise a phylogenetic lineage, distinct from the bowhead, and that the bowhead and the right whales are rightly classified into two separate genera. The right whales were thus confirmed to be in a separate genus, Eubalaena. The relationship is shown in the cladogram below:
|The bowhead whale, genus Balaena, in the family Balaenidae (extant taxa only)|
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. The earlier fossil record shows no related cetacean after Morenocetus, found in a South American deposit dating back 23 million years.
An unknown species of right whale, the so-called "Swedenborg whale" which was proposed by Emanuel Swedenborg in the 18th century, was once thought to be a North Atlantic right whale by scientific consensus. However based on later DNA analysis those fossil bones claimed to be from "Swedenborg whales" were confirmed to be from bowhead whales.
The bowhead whale has a robust, dark-colored body, no dorsal fin, a strongly bowed lower jaw and narrow upper jaw. Its baleen is the longest of any whale at 3 m (9.8 ft), and is used to strain tiny prey from the water. The bowhead whale has paired blowholes that spout a blow 20 feet high. Its blubber is the thickest of any animal, averaging 43–50 cm (17–20 in).
It is comparable in size to the three species of right whale. According to the whaling captain William Scoresby, Jr., the longest bowhead he measured was 17.7 m (58 ft) long, while the longest measurement he had ever heard of was of a 20.4 m (67 ft) whale caught at Godhavn, Greenland, in the spring of 1813. He also spoke of one caught near Spitsbergen around 1800 that was allegedly nearly 21.3 m (70 ft) in length, but its questionable if it actually was measured. The longest reliably measured of each sex were a 16.2 m (53 ft) male and an 18 m (59 ft) female, both harvested and landed in Alaska. Females are larger than males.
Analysis of hundreds of DNA samples from living whales and from baleen used in vessels, toys and housing material has shown that Arctic bowhead whales have lost a significant portion of their genetic diversity in the past 500 years. Bowheads crossed ice-covered inlets and straits to exchange genes between Atlantic and Pacific populations. This conclusion derived from analyzing maternal lineage using mitochondrial DNA, most likely because of whaling and climatic cooling between the 16th and 19th centuries — known as the Little Ice Age — which reduced the whales’ summer habitat.
A recent discovery has elucidated the function of the Bowhead's large palatal retial organ. The bulbous ridge of highly vascularized tissue, termed the corpus cavernosum maxillaris, extends along the centre of the hard plate, forming two large lobes at the rostral palate. The tissue is histologically similar to the corpus cavernosum of the mammalian penis. It is hypothesized that this organ provides a mechanism of cooling for the whale (which is normally protected from the cold Arctic waters by 40 cm or more of fat). During times of physical exertion, the whale must cool itself to prevent hyperthermia (and ultimately brain damage). It is now believed that this organ engorges with blood, causing the whale to respond by opening its mouth so that cold seawater can flow over the organ, thus cooling the blood.
The bowhead is social and nonaggressive, and retreats under the ice when threatened.
Swimming and behavior
The bowhead is a slow swimmer and usually travels alone or in small herds of up to six. Though it may remain submerged as long as 40 minutes in a single dive, it is not thought to be a deep diver. Although perhaps less active than Eubalaena sp., the behavior of bowheads generally resembles that of right whales, including showing curiosity towards mankind. Their behavior can also include breaching, tail slapping, and spyhopping. Beluga whales often follow Bowheads; perhaps from curiosity, perhaps to secure polynya feasible for belugas to breathe, as bowheads are capable of breaking through ice from beneath by headbutting.
The bowhead whale is highly vocal and uses underwater sounds to communicate while traveling, feeding, and socializing. Some bowheads make long, repetitive songs that may be mating calls.
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 three to four years, after a 13–14 month pregnancy. The newborn calf is about 4.5 m (15 ft) long and approximately 1,000 kg (2,200 lb), growing to 9 m (30 ft) by its first birthday.
Bowheads were once thought to live 60 to 70 years, similar to other whales. However, discoveries of 19th century ivory, slate, and jade spear points in freshly killed whales in 1993, 1995, 1999, and 2007 triggered research based on structures in the whale's eye, suggesting that at least some individuals reached 150–200 years old (another report claimed a 90-year-old female was still fertile). If true, this would make them the longest lived mammal. Amino acid dating using the amino acid racemization process provided the first scientific basis for these claims. This process is controversial and has failed to correlate well with other dating methods. However, in 2015, scientists from the US and UK mapped the whale's genome and identified two alleles that differed from those in Minke whales and could be responsible for the difference in their longevity.
In May 2007, a 15 m (49 ft) specimen caught off the Alaskan coast was discovered with the head of an explosive harpoon embedded deep under its neck blubber. The 3.5-inch (89 mm) arrow-shaped projectile was manufactured in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a major whaling center, around 1890, suggesting the animal may have survived a similar hunt more than a century ago.
Range and habitat
The bowhead whale is the only baleen whale to spend its entire life in and around Arctic waters. The Alaskan population spends the winter months in the southwestern Bering Sea. The group migrates northward in the spring, following openings in the pack ice, into the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. It has been confirmed that their range changes depending on climate changes.
The bowhead population around Alaska has increased since commercial whaling ceased. Alaska Natives continue to kill small numbers in subsistence hunts each year. This level of killing (25–40 animals annually) is not expected to affect the population's recovery. The population off Alaska's coast (the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort stock) appears to be recovering and was about 10,500 animals as of 2001. Researchers from the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences have been studying the whales' feeding behaviors in the Point Barrow area. The status of other populations is less well known. There were about 1,200 off West Greenland in 2006, while the Svalbard population may only number in the tens, but with increasing numbers in recent years.
In March 2008, Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans stated the previous estimates in the eastern Arctic had undercounted, with a new estimate of 14,400 animals (range 4,800–43,000). These larger numbers correspond to prewhaling estimates, indicating this population has fully recovered. However, should climate change substantially shrink sea ice, they could be threatened by increased shipping traffic.
Sea of Okhotsk
Not much is known about the endangered Sea of Okhotsk population. However, since recent times whales have been regularly observed near the Shantar Islands, very close to the shore, such as at Ongachan Bay. Several companies provide whale watching services which are mostly land-based. According to Russian scientists, this total population likely does not exceed 400 animals. Scientific research on this population was seldom done before 2009, when researchers studying Belugas noticed concentrations of Bowheads in the study area. Thus bowheads in the Sea of Okhotsk were once called "forgotten whales" by researchers. With support from WWF, Russian scientists and nature conservationists cooperated to create a cetacean sanctuary in the Magadan region which covers vast areas of north western Sea of Okhotsk including the Shantar regions. Cetacean species benefiting from this proposal include several critically endangered species such as North Pacific right whales, western Gray whales, and the smaller Belugas, or white whales (Delphinapterus leucas).
International support from several other organizations has been offered.
The most endangered and historically the largest of all Bowhead populations is the Svalbard/Spitsbergen stock. Occurring normally in Fram Strait, Barents Sea and Severnaya Zemlya along Kara Sea to Laptev Sea and East Siberian Sea regions, these whales were seen in entire coastal regions in European and Russian Arctic, even reaching to Icelandic and Scandinavian coasts and Jan Mayen in Greenland Sea, and west of Cape Farewell and western Greenland coasts. Also, Bowheads in this stock were possibly once abundant in areas with adjacent to the White Sea region, where few or no animals currently migrate, such as Kola and Kanin Peninsula. Today, the number of sightings in elsewhere are very small, but with increasing regularities with whales having strong regional connections. Whales have also started approaching townships and inhabited areas such as around Longyearbyen. The waters around the marine mammal sanctuary of Franz Josef Land is possibly functioning as the most important habitat for this population.
Current status of population structure of this stock is unclear; whether they are remnant of historic Svalbard group, or re-colonized individuals from other stocks, or mixing of these two or more stocks had taken place.
Possible moulting area on Baffin Island
During expeditions by a tour operator 'Arctic Kingdom', a large group of Bowheads seemingly involved in courtship activities was discovered in very shallow bays in south of Qikiqtarjuaq in 2012. Floating skins and rubbing behaviors at sea bottom indicate possible moulting had been taken place. Moulting behaviors had never or seldomly been documented for this species before, and this area is supposed to be an important habitat for whales that were observed to be relatively active and to interact with humans positively, or to rest on sea floors. These whales belong to Davis Strait stock.
Isabella Bay in Niginganiq National Wildlife Area is the first wildlife sanctuary in the world to be designed specially for Bowhead whales, but moultings have not been recorded in this area due to environmental factors.
|This section needs additional citations for verification. (December 2007)|
Unlike most other baleen whales, which primarily feed on concentrated shoals of prey species, it feeds in a manner similar to the basking shark by swimming forward with its mouth wide open, continuously filtering water through its baleen plates. Thus, it specializes in much smaller prey, such as copepods. Its mouth has a large upturning lip on the lower jaw that helps to reinforce and contain the baleen plates within its mouth, and prevents buckling or breakage of the plates due to the pressure of the water passing through them as it advances.
This is in contrast to the rorquals, which have distensible ventral pleats that they fill with prey-laden water, then expel the water while filtering out the prey through their baleen plates. They also feed on krill and copepods.
The bowhead whale has been hunted for blubber, meat, oil, bones, and baleen. Like right whales, it swims slowly, and floats after death, making it ideal for whaling. Before commercial whaling, they were estimated to number 50,000.
Commercial bowhead whaling began in the 16th century, when the Basques killed them as they migrated south through the Strait of Belle Isle in the fall and early winter. In 1611, the first whaling expedition sailed to Spitsbergen. By mid-century, the population(s) there had practically been wiped out, forcing whalers to voyage into the "West Ice"—the pack ice off Greenland's east coast. By 1719, they had reached the Davis Strait, and by the first quarter of the 19th century, Baffin Bay.
In the North Pacific, the first bowheads were taken off the eastern coast of Kamchatka by the Danish whaleship Neptun, Captain Thomas Sodring, in 1845. In 1847, the first bowheads were caught in the Sea of Okhotsk, and the following year, Captain Thomas Welcome Roys, in the bark Superior, of Sag Harbor, caught the first bowheads in the Bering Strait region. By 1849, 50 ships were hunting bowheads in each area. By 1852, 220 ships were cruising around the Bering Strait region, which killed over 2,600 whales. Between 1854 and 1857, the fleet shifted to the Sea of Okhotsk, where 100–160 ships cruised annually. During 1858–1860, the ships shifted back to the Bering Strait region, where the majority of the fleet would cruise during the summer up until the early 20th century. An estimated 18,600 bowheads were killed in the Bering Strait region between 1848 and 1914, with 60% of the total being reached within the first two decades. An estimated 18,000 bowheads were killed in the Sea of Okhotsk during 1847–1867, 80% in the first decade.
Bowheads were first taken along the pack ice in the northeastern Sea of Okhotsk, then in Tausk Bay and Northeast Gulf (Shelikhov Gulf). Soon, ships expanded to the west, catching them around Iony Island and then around the Shantar Islands. In the Western Arctic, they mainly caught them in the Anadyr Gulf, the Bering Strait, and around St. Lawrence Island. They later spread to the western Beaufort Sea (1854) and the Mackenzie River delta (1889).
The bowhead is listed in Appendix I by CITES (that is, "threatened with extinction"). It is listed by the National Marine Fisheries Service as "endangered" under the auspices of the United States' Endangered Species Act. The IUCN Red List data are as follows:
- Svalbard population – Critically endangered
- Sea of Okhotsk subpopulation – Endangered
- Baffin Bay-Davis Strait stock – Endangered
- Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin stock – Vulnerable (Estimated to be 1,026 individuals in 2005 by DFO)
- Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort stock – Lower risk – conservation dependent
The bowhead whale is listed on Appendix I of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), as this species has been categorized as being in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant proportion of their range and CMS Parties strive towards strictly protecting these animals, conserving or restoring the places where they live, mitigating obstacles to migration and controlling other factors that might endanger them.
Cavorting whales in northwestern part of Sea of Okhotsk
Whale showing one of pectoral fins in Foxe Basin
Map of the bowhead whale ranges centered over the North Pole
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Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Bowhead whales and right whales often have been included in the same genus (Balaena) (e.g., Rice 1998), but most recent classifications recognize them as distinct genera (Balaena for bowhead whale, Eubalaena for right whales) (e.g., Baker et al. 2003; Mead and Brownell, in Wilson and Reeder 2005). MtDNA data are consistent with recognition of Balaena and Eubalaena as distinct genera (Rosenbaum et al. 2000).
Five stocks currently recognized worldwide: Spitsbergen, Davis Strait, Hudson Bay, Okhotsk and Western Arctic, or Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas (IWC 1992 in Rugh et al. 2003).