The Bowhead Whale – September 2022

Happy September! After a short summer break, let’s welcome the bowhead whale as our whale of the month! These magnificent baleen whales only reside in the polar waters of the Arctic. They are also the oldest living mammal on earth. Let’s find out more about them!

A bowhead whale surfaces in Fram Strait, to the northwest of Norway. Credit: Kit Kovacs/Norwegian Polar Institute

Queens and Kings of the Arctic

Bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) are the only living member of the Balaena genus. They are cousins to Right whales (Eubalaena) in the Balaenidae family. Bowhead whales can be identified by their dark grey bodies and white chins, a trait is known as countershading.

Bowhead whales can grow up to 66ft (20m) long and weigh up to 200,000lbs (90 tons)! One unique feature is that they don’t have a dorsal fin. This distinguishes them from most other cetaceans.

Bowheads get their name due to their large, bow-shaped head, which comprises about a third of their total body length! Their deceptively large, thick skulls allow them to break through the heavy sea ice, while 17-19in thick blubber allows them to survive freezing Arctic temperatures. They are one of the only cetaceans that reside exclusively in the Arctic.

bowhead whales threats climate change
Infographic credit: Anaïs Remili

Bowheads are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Even in their remote homes in the Arctic, they still face human threats. Notably, noise pollution from deep-sea mining, Arctic oil-and-gas exploration projects, and expanding shipping routes as polar ice melts. Sea ice is known to attenuate noise as it comes in contact with its rough surface. With the melting ice, sound propagation will be affected, causing noise pollution to be further amplified. Other threats include chemical pollution, ship strikes, and entanglement from fishing gear. Scars from these entanglements, or attacks from predators like Orcas, can be used to identify specific individuals.

The longest lifespan of all

As we have previously discussed, multiple factors can influence how long whales may live. These may include diet, geography & habitat, genetics, lifestyle, and level of endangerment. The bowhead whale is the longest-living animal on earth. Scientists estimate the oldest individual to be over 200 years old! It is difficult to say exactly what allows these whales to live so long; a particularity in DNA mutations, exclusively living in arctic waters, their excessively large mouths, or something else entirely. Whatever the case, this individual could potentially remember what the ocean was like before the industrial revolution. Imagine how quiet it must have been…

Scientists believe bowhead can repair their DNA faster than other species, which could explain why they live so long. – Credit: Pixabay

Jazz singers of the sea

Bowhead whales are highly vocal, and they have a large repertoire. While other baleen whales like Humpbacks have somewhat predictable vocal patterns, bowheads have unique and constantly changing vocalizations.

Whales, like many marine animals, use sound to navigate the oceans and communicate. It is a highly efficient technique since sound travels faster than light in the sea depths. Males are usually the ones who sing their songs. It is believed that they do this to defend their territories or attract potential mates.

One unique aspect of bowhead vocalizations is that they are uniquely prolific compared to their baleen cousin, the humpback whale. While humpback whales tend to repeat vocalization patterns, bowhead whales have shown differences in their songs within and across different years. Their songs are thus always evolving and incredibly diverse compared to other whale species.

Resources

  • NOAA Species Directory
  • Noise Field in the Arctic
  • Stafford, K. M., Christian Lydersen, Øystein Wiig, and Kit M. Kovacs. “Extreme diversity in the songs of Spitsbergen’s bowhead whales.” Biology letters 14, no. 4 (2018): 20180056.
  • Keane, M., Semeiks, J., Webb, A.E., Li, Y.I., Quesada, V., Craig, T., Madsen, L.B., van Dam, S., Brawand, D., Marques, P.I. and Michalak, P., 2015. Insights into the evolution of longevity from the bowhead whale genome. Cell reports10(1), pp.112-122.

Brianna has a background in marine biology and currently works as a live-aboard deckhand/educator at the Los Angeles Maritime Institute (LAMI). Her research interests include ocean conservation, specifically in the high seas and polar regions, and identifying marine mammal vocalizations in the global soundscape. She is passionate about music and can’t write without coffee.

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1 thought on “The Bowhead Whale – September 2022”

  1. Brianna – I deeply appreciate the work/study you are doing in marine biology, with whales, sound and sea life. Thank you for writing. Keep good quality coffee on hand at all times:). Marta

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