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Beluga Calf Update - 07/31

Beluga calf see, beluga calf do.

Puiji's calf enjoys one of his newly acquired skills, swimming upside down.

That's how Puiji's calf is learning new behaviors, by mimicking Mom. And, at just 2 weeks old on July 31, he's already learned so much!

Following his mom's lead, he tried out swimming upside down when he was less than 4 days old. His repertoire of behaviors quickly grew to include lobbing his tail on the surface, spitting water (he's learning from a master — Puiji is unparalleled in aim and force), rubbing his back on the underwater rocks, drifting, spyhopping, spinning and looking at the other belugas through a gate between habitats.

Mimicry is a natural way for the calf to learn things, and he's trying out these behaviors with no prompting from the marine mammals staffers.

"We're watching the calf watch Mom," says Ken Ramirez, v.p. of animal collections and training. "It's funny when he tries something, because he's not very good at it yet. But he watches Mom and tries hard to do the same things she does. It's very enjoyable to watch him."

Last week, the little beluga spent an entire day practicing swimming upside down, something that Puiji does all the time. "It took him several days to master," says Ken, "and now it's one of his favorite things to do."

One of his newest acquired behaviors is drifting alongside his mother and resting. "That's an incredible feat," Ken says. "Most calves can't rest very much. They don't know how to slow down. It often takes a month or more to get to that point." Because Puiji's calf has an independent streak and began swimming off by himself earlier than most calves do (causing staffers some concern), he's more coordinated in the water and he learned drifting more quickly. And that brings him back to Mom.

"Mimicry is also a good sign of mother-calf bonding and of the development we'd like to see from the calf," Ken adds.

At the beginning of last week, Ken was a little concerned that Puiji wasn't eating enough to produce ample milk for her calf. He's happy to report that since then, her appetite has steadily climbed from about 32 pounds of food a day to more than 50 pounds.
At the same time, the calf's nursing times have tapered off a bit. "That could mean the start of some kind of health problem, or it could mean that the calf has simply gotten more efficient at nursing," Ken says. He checked the data on other beluga calves, including Qannik and Kayavak at Shedd. He saw that, at 12 days old, Puiji's calf was right on schedule for refining his technique for getting more milk in less time. The round-the-clock observations and data collection on everything the calf does — from respiration to defecation — also indicate that he is getting plenty of nourishment. "Looking at the calf's energy and his playful nature, and seeing Mom's diet increase," Ken says, "we can finally say, yep, it's just a normal decline in nursing because of efficiency.

"But at a time like this, you can understand how we'd be a little more nervous and a little more cautious. So we watch even more carefully."

Ken is very pleased with the calf's progress. In his first two weeks, the little beluga has become adept at nursing and at a variety of underwater maneuvers. Now it's time to venture outside of Secluded Bay to explore a new habitat and meet new friends. Check back next Monday! 


You can see Bella, her mom and her new beluga friends in the underwater viewing gallery of the Oceanarium.

Click here to see a Flash-based slide show of Bella. (Pop-up window, Flash Player 8 req.)

You can read all of the previous updates at the links below.

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