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Overview

Brief Summary

Species Abstract

The Bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) is one of four species of marine mammal in the family Balaenidae, part of the order of cetaceans. The bowhead whale is the second largest whale in the world, second only to the blue whale. Bowheads live in icy Arctic seas. To insulate against the cold Arctic waters, bowhead blubber may be 70 centimetres thick and the whales can break through ice of a foot deep to make breathing holes. They were hunted to the brink of extinction during the 1800s, and have been slow to recover. There are likely 20,000 to 40,000 bowheads alive today, living in four or five populations. Amazingly, this whale is known to live to over 100 years of age, a fact established by the discovery of stone harpoon heads (out of use since the late 1800s) in the flesh of specimens. If this high longevity is correct, the bowhead whale may be the longest living mammal.

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.
  • * Encyclopedia of Earth. Author: Encyclopedia of Life. "Bowhead whale". Topic editor: C.Michael Hogan. Ed.-in-chief Cutler J.Cleveland. National Council for Science and the Environment. Washington DC http://www.eoearth.org/article/Bowhead_Whale
  • * S.E.Cosens. 2004. Baffin Bay-Davis Strait and Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin Bowheads: Update on Research 2003/04. International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee.
  • * K.J.Finley. 1990. Isabella Bay, Baffin Island: an important historical and present-day concentration area for the endangered bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) of the eastern Canadian arctic. Arctic 43(2): 137-152.
  • * K.J.Finley. 2000. Natural history and conservation of the Greenland whale, or Bowhead whale, in the Northwest Atlantic. Arctic 54: 55-76.
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Description

Bowheads live in icy Arctic seas. 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 environment. They can smash through ice as thick as 60 cm to create breathing holes. 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. Bowheads are social animals, and communicate through long-distance vocalizations, some carrying 5-10 km. Males get involved in showy bouts of breaching and fluke-slapping, probably because they are competing with one another for access to females. There are probably fewer than 10,000 bowheads alive today, living in four or five populations. They were hunted to the brink of extinction during the 1800s, and have been slow to recover.

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Mammal Species of the World
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  • Original description: Linnaeus, C., 1758.  Systema Naturae per regna tria naturae, secundum classis, ordines, genera, species cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. Tenth Edition.  Laurentii Salvii, Stockholm, 1:75, 824 pp.
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Description

The bowhead whale is so-called because of its bow-shaped mouth (7) and is black in colour with a whitish chin patch (6), broken by a 'necklace' of black spots (8). This whale lacks a dorsal fin and is usually visible as two bumps from above water, which correspond to the head and the back (8). The blow (or spout) is produced from the two widely spaced blowholes, and is a bushy V shape reaching seven metres in height (8). The baleen is dark grey to black in colour (6) and is the longest of any whale; sometimes measuring well over three metres in length (3). Females are larger than males, but otherwise the two sexes are generally of similar appearance (7).
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Biology

Amazingly, this whale is known to live to over 100 years of age, a fact established by the discovery of stone harpoon heads (out of use since the late 1800s) in the flesh of specimens. The diet consists of planktonic crustaceans, which are filtered through the baleen plates (7). Bowhead whales often skim-feed on the surface of the sea but also gather food from the sea floor. To insulate against the cold Arctic waters, bowhead blubber may be 70 centimetres thick and the whales can break through ice of a foot deep to make breathing holes (3). Bowheads are slow breeders and 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 (3).
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Comprehensive Description

Black with white chin patch and white on tail base; No dorsal fin - V-shaped, bushy, high blow; Massive head with large baleen in upper, arching jaw
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Biology

Bowhead Whale: A slow swimming plankton-feeder with the longest baleen of all whales
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Distribution

occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations

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National Distribution

Canada

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Year-round

United States

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Year-round

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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.

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Subarctic area
  • UNESCO-IOC Register of Marine Organisms
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Range Description

Bowhead Whales are found only in Arctic and subarctic regions. They spend much of their lives in and near the pack ice, migrating to the high Arctic in summer, and retreating southward in winter with the advancing ice edge (Moore and Reeves 1993).

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.
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Geographic Range

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.
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Historic Range:
Oceanic (north latitudes only)

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Davis Strait and Hudson Bay
  • North-West Atlantic Ocean species (NWARMS)
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Range

This species was once found throughout the high latitudes of the northern hemisphere seas (7). Only a few populations remain today, in Arctic seas following the retreat and advance of the pack ice (3).
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Physical Description

Morphology

Physical Description

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..
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Size

Length: 2000 cm

Weight: 1.0E8 grams

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Size in North America

Length:
Range: 14-17 m males; 16-18 m females

Weight:
Range: 7,500-10,000 kg
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Ecology

Habitat

in pack ice regions
  • UNESCO-IOC Register of Marine Organisms
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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).

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Habitat and Ecology

Habitat and Ecology
The seasonal distribution is strongly influenced by pack ice (Moore and Reeves 1993). During the winter Bowhead Whales occur in areas near the ice edge, in polynyas, and in areas of unconsolidated pack ice. During the spring these whales use leads and cracks in the ice to penetrate areas that were inaccessible during the winter due to heavy ice coverage. During the summer and autumn they concentrate in areas where zooplankton production is high or where large-scale biophysical processes create local concentrations of calanoid copepods (Finley 1990, Finley et al. 1998).

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.

Systems
  • Marine
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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

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Arctic to subarctic shelves, often near sea ice; Circumpolar but discontinuous distribution
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The bowhead whale is often found close to the edge of the Arctic ice shelf (6).
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Migration

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.

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Trophic Strategy

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).

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Food Habits

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

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Pelagic and near-bottom filter-feeder; Swims through zooplankton with mouth agape targetting copepods, euphausids, and amphipods; Near bottom foraging sometimes results in mud on head and back
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Associations

Ecosystem Roles

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.

Commensal/Parasitic Species:

  • barnacle species

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Predation

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).

Known Predators:

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Known predators

Balaena mysticetus is prey of:
Homo sapiens
Orcinus orca

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
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Known prey organisms

Balaena mysticetus preys on:
non-insect arthropods
zooplankton
Crustacea

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
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Population Biology

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).

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Global Abundance

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).

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General Ecology

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).

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Life History and Behavior

Life Cycle

Length at birth 3-4.5m (10-15 feet); Sexual maturity at 12-20 years; Females have calves every 3-7 years; Longevity over 200 years; Behavior; Swims slowly; Capable of breaking through 60 cm (2 feet) of ice; Usually single or in small groups, sometimes in aggregations during
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Life Expectancy

Lifespan/Longevity

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).

Range lifespan

Status: wild:
200 (high) years.

Typical lifespan

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.
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Lifespan, longevity, and ageing

Maximum longevity: 211 years (wild) Observations: These animals exhibit slow growth and high survival. Growth may be faster in females than in males, and it slows down markedly at around 40-50 years of age. Sexual maturity is probably reached at age 20-25. Using an indirect method for age estimation based on aspartic acid racemization, the bowhead whale has been recorded as the longest-lived mammal thanks to one male estimated to be 211 years-old. The same study found three other male specimens estimated to be over 100 years of age. Very few obvious signs of pathology were found in old bowheads. The 211 year-old specimen was reported to appear old with though meat and blubber. One of the centenarian males exhibited a spondylitic lesion on the vertebra. Reproductive senescence has not been reported, though detailed studies are lacking (George et al. 1999).
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Reproduction

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).

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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); 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.
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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Barcode data: Balaena mysticetus

The following is a representative barcode sequence, the centroid of all available sequences for this species.


There are 8 barcode sequences available from BOLD and GenBank.  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.

ATGTTCATAAACCGCTGACTATTCTCAACCAACCACAAAGATATTGGCACCTTATATTTACTATTTGGTGCCTGAGCAGGAATAGTAGGCACTGGCCTAAGCTTATTAATCCGCGCTGAACTAGGTCAGCCTGGCACACTAATCGGAGACGATCAAGTCTACAATGTATTAGTAACAGCCCACGCCTTCGTAATAATCTTCTTCATAGTAATACCCATTATAATTGGCGGATTTGGAAACTGACTAGTTCCCTTAATAATTGGAGCACCTGACATGGCTTTCCCCCGTATAAATAATATAAGCTTCTGACTACTCCCTCCTTCTTTCCTACTGCTAATAGCATCCTCAATGGTCGAAGCCGGTGCAGGCACAGGCTGAACTGTATATCCCCCTCTAGCCGGAAACCTAGCACATGCAGGAGCTTCAGTCGACCTTACCATCTTCTCTCTACACCTAGCTGGCGTATCCTCTATCCTCGGAGCCATCAACTTTATCACAACTATCATTAACATAAAACCACCCGCCATAACCCAATATCAAACACCTCTTTTCGTATGATCAGTTCTAGTCACAGCAGTACTACTCCTACTATCACTACCTGTCCTAGCGGCTGGAATCACCATGCTATTAACTGACCGAAACCTAAACACAACTTTCTTCGACCCTGCAGGTGGAGGAGACCCAATCCTGTATCAACACCTATTCTGATTTTTTGGTCACCCTGAAGTATACATCTTAATCCTCCCTGGGTTCGGAATAATCTCACACATTGTGACTTATTACTCAGGAAAAAAAGAACCTTTCGGCTATATAGGAATAGTCTGAGCTATGGTATCTATTGGATTCTTAGGCTTCATCGTATGGGCACACCACATATTCACAGTAGGAATAGACGTTGACACACGAGCATACTTCACATCAGCCACTATAATCATCGCCATCCCCACAGGAGTAAAAGTCTTCAGCTGATTAGCAACACTCCATGGAGGCAACATTAAATGATCTCCTGCCCTAATATGAGCCCTAGGCTTCATCTTCCTTTTCACAGTAGGTGGTCTAACCGGCATTGTCCTAGCCAACTCATCATTAGACATTGTCCTACACGACACCTACTACGTAGTTGCCCACTTCCACTATGTACTTTCAATAGGGGCCGTCTTCGCCATTATAGGAGGCTTTGTCCACTGATTCCCACTATTCTCAGGATACACACTTAACTCAACATGAACAAAAATTCACTTTATAATCATATTCGTAGGCGTGAACCTAACATTCTTCCCACAACACTTCTTAGGCTTATCCGGCATACCTCGACGATACTCCGACTACCCAGACGCCTACACAATGTGAAACACTATCTCATCAATAGGCTCATTCATCTCATTAACAGCAGTAATACTAATAATTTTCATCATCTGAGAAGCATTCACATCCAAACGAGAAGTCTCAGCAGTAGACCTCACCTCTACTAACCTTGAATGATTAAACGGATGTCCTCCACCATACCACACATTCGAAGAGCCCGCATACGTCAACCCAAAATGATCAAGA
-- end --

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Statistics of barcoding coverage: Balaena mysticetus

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 8
Specimens with Barcodes: 8
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation

Conservation Status

National NatureServe Conservation Status

Canada

Rounded National Status Rank: N3 - Vulnerable

United States

Rounded National Status Rank: N2 - Imperiled

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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

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IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
LC
Least Concern

Red List Criteria

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2012

Assessor/s
Reilly, S.B., Bannister, J.L., Best, P.B., Brown, M., Brownell Jr., R.L., Butterworth, D.S., Clapham, P.J., Cooke, J., Donovan, G., Urbán, J. & Zerbini, A.N.

Reviewer/s
Taylor, B.L. & Notarbartolo di Sciara, G.

Contributor/s

Justification
The global population appears to be increasing, due primarily to the increase in the large Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort (BCB) subpopulation, even though the trends in the remaining populations are unclear. The BCB subpopulation size is well above the Vulnerable threshold for a non-declining population, and current assessments suggest that this stock has recovered to close to its pre-whaling level. The estimate of over 7,000 animals for part of the range of the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin and Baffin Bay-Davis Strait stocks combined is still provisional, but it is unlikely that the final numbers would be so low that these subpopulations (or the single combined subpopulation) would qualify for a threatened category. Bowhead Whale numbers in eastern Canada and West Greenland are probably still below their pre-whaling levels, although the main reductions occurred before the three-generation time window that would trigger the population reduction (A) criterion. For all these reasons, the species is listed as Least Concern.

History
  • 1994
    Vulnerable
    (Groombridge 1994)
  • 1990
    Vulnerable
    (IUCN 1990)
  • 1988
    Endangered
    (IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1988)
  • 1986
    Endangered
    (IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1986)
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Current Listing Status Summary

Status: Endangered
Date Listed: 06/02/1970
Lead Region:   National Marine Fisheries Service (Region 11) 
Where Listed: Entire


Population detail:

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

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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

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Status

#The Spitsbergen population is Critically Endangered; the Baffin Bay and Okhotsk Sea populations are Endangered; and the group in Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin is Vulnerable.
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Status

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Listed on Appendix I of CITES (4), and Appendix I of the Convention on Migratory Species (5).
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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.

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Population

Population
Current Population sizes
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).

Population trends
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.

Demographic parameters
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.

Population Trend
Increasing
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Threats

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.

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Major Threats
Heavy commercial hunting, beginning in the 1500s, depleted all populations of Bowheads. The Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas (BCB) stock has recovered substantially since the end of commercial whaling in the early 20th century, while recent provisional estimates of the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin and Baffin Bay-Davis Strait stocks also suggest significant recovery. There is no reliable evidence of recovery of the Svalbard-Barents Sea (Spitsbergen) and Okhotsk Sea stocks.

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.
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The main threat to this species has been hunting, particularly following the expansion of the whaling industry after the 1600s (7). Other current threats include entanglement in fishing nets and collisions with ships (8). Pollution, climate change and disturbance by tourists are also likely to be having a detrimental effect on this whale (3).
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Management

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.

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Conservation Actions

Conservation Actions
The International Whaling Commission has protected Bowhead Whales from commercial whaling since its inception in 1946; all range states except Canada are members of the IWC. Limited aboriginal subsistence whaling is allowed by the IWC on Bowhead Whales from the BCB stock on the basis of scientific advice (see Threats section). Aboriginal hunting in Canada is co-managed by the national government and regional bodies created under land-claim agreements. This species has been included in CITES Appendix I since 1975; Canada had a reservation against this listing until 1978. The species is listed in CMS Appendix I.
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Conservation

In 1986 the worldwide moratorium on whaling came into effect, although small-scale hunting of this whale by the Inuit of Alaska continues under the guidance of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) (9). The population of bowhead whales appears able to absorb this low-level pressure however, and numbers are increasing in some areas (2).
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Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems

Benefits

Economic Uses

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).

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Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

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).

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Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

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

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Risks

IUCN Red List Category

subpopulation Svaalbard-Barents Sea bowhead whale : Critically Endangered (CR)
  • IUCN (2008) Cetacean update of the 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
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IUCN Red List Category

subpopulation Okhotsk Sea bowhead whale : Endangered (EN)
  • IUCN (2008) Cetacean update of the 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
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IUCN Red List Category

subpopulation Bering-Beaufort-Chukchi Sea bowhead whale : Lower Risk/conservation dependent (LR/cd)
  • IUCN (2008) Cetacean update of the 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
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IUCN Red List Category

Least Concern (LC)
  • IUCN (2008) Cetacean update of the 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
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Wikipedia

Bowhead whale

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),[3] second only to the blue whale, although the bowhead's maximum length is less than several other whales. It lives entirely in fertile Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, unlike other whales that migrate to feed or reproduce to low latitude waters. It was also known as Greenland right whale or Arctic whale. American whalemen called it the steeple-top, polar whale,[4] or Russia or Russian whale. The bowhead has the largest mouth of any animal.[5]

The bowhead was an early whaling target. Its population was severely reduced before a 1966 moratorium. The population is estimated to be over 24,900 worldwide, down from an estimated 50,000 before whaling.[citation needed]

Taxonomy[edit]

Carl Linnaeus first described this whale in the 10th edition of his Systema Naturae (1758).[6] 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 Gray in 1821.[7] For the next 180 years, the Balaenidae family has been 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).[8]

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.[9] The right whales were thus confirmed to be in a separate genus, Eubalaena. The relationship is shown in the cladogram below:


Family Balaenidae
 Family Balaenidae 
  Eubalaena (right whales)  

 E. glacialis North Atlantic right whale




 E. japonica North Pacific right whale



 E. australis Southern right whale




  Balaena (bowhead whales)  

  B. mysticetus bowhead whale  



The bowhead whale, genus Balaena, in the family Balaenidae (extant taxa only)[10]


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, so-called the "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 of those fossil bones to be claimed as of "Swedenborg whales", it was confirmed to be actually from Bowhead Whales.[11]

Description[edit]

Resting on water surface in Foxe Basin

The bowhead whale has a robust, dark-colored body, no dorsal fin and a strongly bowed lower jaw and narrow upper jaw. Its baleen, the longest of any whale at 3 m (9.8 ft), strains tiny prey from the water. The whale has a massive bony skull which it uses to break through the Arctic ice to breathe. Inuit hunters have reported them surfacing through 60 cm (24 in) of ice. The bowhead whale has paired blowholes that spout a blow 20 feet high. It is of comparable 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 it doesn't appear to have been actually measured.[12] 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.[13] Females are larger than males. Its blubber is the thickest of any animal, averaging 43–50 cm (17–20 in).

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.[14]

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's hypothesized that this organ provides a mechanism of cooling for the whale (which is normally protected from the cold Arctic waters by 40 cm of fat). During times of physical exertion, the whale must cool itself to prevent hyperthermia (and ultimately brain damage). It's believed that this organ will engorge with blood; the whale will respond by opening its mouth and allowing the cold seawater flow over the organ, cooling the blood.[15]

Life history[edit]

Drawing of long backbone, 13 ribs (two vestigial) large, curved upper and lower jawbones that occupy 1/3 of the body, 4 multijointed "fingers" inside pectoral fin and connecting bone, enclosed in body outline
Skeleton of a bowhead whale

The bowhead is social and nonaggressive, and retreats under the ice when threatened.

Swimming[edit]

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.

The whales' behavior can also include breaching, tail slapping, and spyhopping.

Vocalizations[edit]

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.

Reproduction[edit]

Stamp showing drawing of mother and calf

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.

Because of their long lifespans, females are believed to go through menopause. Observations of very large animals without calves support this hypothesis.[16]

Lifespan[edit]

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[17] triggered research based on structures in the whale's eye, suggesting at least some individuals reached 150–200 years old (another report claimed a 90-year-old female was still fertile).[18] The amino acid racemization process has provided the scientific basis for these claims. This process is controversial and has failed to correlate well with other dating methods.[19]

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 inches (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.[20][21][22]

Recent data have shown that specimens might reach 200 years of age.[23]

Ecology[edit]

Drawing of an adult in 1884

Range and habitat[edit]

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.[24] It is confirmed that there ranges had been changing largely depending on climate changes along with right whales.[25]

Population[edit]

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.[26]

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).[27] 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.[28]

Whale spyhops in Ulbansky Bay, north western Okhotsk Sea.[29]

Sea of Okhotsk[edit]

Not much is known about endangered Sea of Okhotsk population, however, nowadays whales are regularly observed at Shantar Islands, very close to shores such as at Ongachan Bay.[30][31] Several companies provide whale watching services which are mostly land-based. According to Russian scientists, total population would not exceed 400 animals.[29] Scientific researches on this population was only taken quite seldom until 2009, when researches studying Belugas noticed concentration of Bowheads in the study area. With supports from WWF, Russian scientists and nature conservationists cooperated to create a cetacean sanctuary in Magadan region which covers vast areas of north western Sea of Okhotsk including Shantar regions.[32] Cetacean species benefitting this proposal include several critically endangered species such as North Pacific right whales, western Gray whales, and Belugas. International supports by several other organizations have been offered.[29]

Russian Arctic[edit]

The most endangered and historically the largest of all Bowhead populations is the Svalbard/Spitsbergen stock.[33] Occurring normally in Fram Strait,[34] Barents Sea and Severnaya Zemlya along Kara Sea[26] 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.[35] Also, Bowheads in this stock were possibly once abundant in areas with adjacent to the White Sea region where none or if very few animals migrate in present time such as Kola and Kanin Peninsula. Today, the number of sightings in elsewhere are very small,[36] but with increasing regularities[37] with whales having strong regional connections.[38] Whales have also started approaching townships and inhabited areas such as around Longyearbyen.[39] The waters around the marine mammal sanctuary[40] of Franz Josef Land is possibly functioning as the most important habitat for this population.[41][42]

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[edit]

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.[43] 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.[44]

Feeding[edit]

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.

Predation[edit]

The principal predators of bowheads are humans. Occasionally, predatory attacks by orca pods have also been recorded.[45]

Whaling[edit]

Two whaleboats beached in foreground, 5 rowed and 4 sailing whaleboats chasing/attacking 5 whales, two larger whaling ships nearby, and sun peeking around snow-covered mountain in background
Eighteenth century engraving showing Dutch whalers hunting bowhead whales in the Arctic

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.[citation needed]

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).

Inuit woman and child standing on bowhead whale after a 2002 subsistence hunt

Commercial whaling, the principal cause of the population decline, is over. Bowhead whales are now hunted on a subsistence level by native peoples of North America.

Conservation[edit]

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:

The bowhead whale is listed on Appendix I[47] 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.

See also[edit]

Gallery[edit]

References[edit]

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Names and Taxonomy

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).

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