A healthy beluga whale calf was welcomed into the Shedd Aquarium family when Mauyak gave birth at 7:23 p.m. on July 3 after a 33-minute labor in the Abbott Oceanarium’s main habitat. Both mom and calf are doing well under the watchful eyes of trainers and the animal health team.
This is the first beluga birth at Shedd since August 2012, when Mauyak had Kimalu.
The dark gray new arrival is estimated to be 5 feet long and weigh about 150 pounds. The sex of the calf has not been determined. The wrinkles in its sides, called fetal folds, are the result of being curled in mom’s womb and will smooth out in a few weeks.
As is typical for belugas, the calf was born flukes first, an adaptation that allows the tail to uncurl and harden in the 50- to 55-degree water during labor. By the time the head pops out, the air-breathing whale is equipped to power itself to the surface for its first breath of air.
The calf quickly passed that first essential milestone, assisted and supported by its experienced mother, and then cruised through two more: bonding with Mauyak and, as she carefully guided it around the habitat, finding the hydrodynamic sweet spot that allows it to slipstream alongside mom with the least expenditure of energy. Within a few hours, the calf was nursing, one of the most difficult milestones because it must find mom’s mammary glands, recessed near her tail, as it swims with her. But after three calves, Mauyak is adept positioning herself to guide a newborn to nourishment.
“This is a humbling and fulfilling moment for our animal care teams, who have been preparing Mauyak for this delivery for more than a year,” said Shedd’s chief animal operations officer, Peggy Sloan. “Every pregnancy and birth brings significant information for both populations in accredited aquariums and their counterparts in the wild.”
The critical milestones, and every minute-by-minute activity of mom and calf, are being recorded by teams of animal care staffers observing the pair around the clock. The next critical milestones they are watching for are increased efficiency at nursing and weight gain.
“After the successful delivery, we are supporting Mauyak and watching her do what she’s proven she does best: care for her new calf,” said Steve Aibel, senior director of marine mammals at Shedd. “Mauyak now begins the process of bonding with and nursing her new calf. During this time, we will be watching closely 24-7 and gathering data on the calf’s important developmental milestones to share with the scientific community.”
Advancing care at Shedd, field research and rescues
Because births are difficult to observe in the wild, much is still unknown about beluga whale reproduction. Most of what we do know comes from studying belugas in aquariums like Shedd, where staff scientists can readily observe and collect data on these animals. Documentation of Mauyak’s gestation, delivery and postnatal care and the calf’s development add valuable insights into a growing body of information that is shared not just with our zoological partners, but also with field biologists, researchers, conservationists and scientist around the globe.
Understanding critical neonatal development can help Shedd’s partners in Canada know if pollution and human activity such as shipping could be detrimental to the reproduction, and therefore recovery, of the critically endangered beluga population in the St. Lawrence River.
Caring for pregnant cetaceans and calves at the aquarium also strengthens the skills necessary for Shedd’s Animal Response Team to collaborate in rescue, rehabilitation and release efforts. Last year, Shedd joined a team of experts in Alaska to provide intensive care to a stranded newborn beluga calf that was part of another critically endangered population of belugas in Cook Inlet.
To give Mauyak and her calf the best care, programming in the Abbott Oceanarium will be adjusted to ensure that they have the time they need for undisturbed bonding and nursing. But we’ll have interpretive chats and progress reports on mom and calf, and guests will continue to be able to visit with the sea otters, sea lions, penguins, dolphins and other belugas.
Shedd is looking forward to another special delivery, Pacific white-sided dolphin Piquet’s calf in October.
—Karen Furnweger, web editor
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