|16.2–18 meters ((53.2–59 feet)
|Mammalia, Artiodactyla, Balaenidae
|Arctic and Subarctic seas
The Bowhead Whale
Very few animals can survive in the extremely cold waters of the Arctic and subarctic seas.
This part of the planet is an icy kingdom subject to extreme conditions, including being completely covered in sea ice for several months of the year.
One of the unexpected inhabitants of this harsh ecosystem is the bowhead whale.
This species of baleen whale lives exclusively in the waters of the Arctic and subarctic seas.
It is one of the few animal species adapted to life in such an extreme environment.
The whale is kept warm in the cold waters by thick layers of fat that are over half a meter.
The bowhead whale’s layer of blubber also serves as an energy reserve during long periods of food scarcity.
Bowhead whales also have a massive triangular skull, built to break through sea ice up to seven inches thick.
While it’s not the biggest whale species in the world, the bowhead is one of the heaviest.
It also has many interesting attributes, including being the longest-living mammal species on earth.
In this article, we’ll explore all the fascinating attributes of the bowhead whale, including its physical characteristics, habits, habitat, and ecological significance.
Taxonomy and Classification
The bowhead whale is also known by other common names such as the Greenland whale, steeple top, or polar whale.
The whale is named after its massive triangular skull shaped like a hunter’s bow.
The scientific name of this whale species is Balaena mysticetus.
It is the only living genus in the Balaena genus.
The bowhead whale is a type of baleen whale, meaning it belongs to the Mysticeti parvorder.
This is a subdivision of the larger Cetacea group, which includes all whale species that feed by sieving planktonic creatures from the water with baleen.
In general, the cetaceans began their evolutionary journey about 50 million years ago.
They evolved from land-dwelling mammals known as the mesonychians.
Their ancestors were ungulate mammals within the order Artiodactyla.
The baleen whales split from the same common ancestors as the toothed whales (Odontoceti) about 34 million years ago.
The closest living relatives of the bowhead whales are the right whales (genus Eubalaena).
They include the North Atlantic right whale, North Pacific right whale, and Southern right whale.
The bowhead whale is a large whale species with a distinctive appearance characterized by a robust body and a prominent bow-shaped head.
This unique head shape is an adaptation for breaking through thick Arctic ice.
The whale can break through layers of ice up to one meter thick to access air and open water.
There is a pair of blowholes at the highest point of the whale’s head.
The bowhead whale has a rounded back, and the body tapers into broad tail flukes that take up almost one-third of the body length.
It has no dorsal fin, an adaptation that aids in maneuverability in the ice-covered sea where it lives.
It has paddle-shaped flippers and a vestigial pelvis not connected to its spine.
Bowhead whales are not the largest whale species, but they’re definitely among the heaviest.
Adults can reach average lengths of up to 16.2 meters (53.2 feet) for males and about 18 meters (59 feet) for females.
However, there are reports of individuals that exceeded 19 meters (62 feet) in length.
The average weight estimate for this whale species is 80 tons.
Despite their massive size, bowhead whales are quite agile and can leap entirely out of water.
The baleen whale has the largest mouth of any animal species.
The mouth is five meters (16 feet) long and up to 2.5 meters (eight feet) wide.
The lower jaw is strongly bowed, and the upper jaw is quite narrow.
The bowhead whale’s baleen is the longest of any whale species, with a maximum length of up to four meters (13 feet) in adults.
Adult bowheads are almost entirely black.
The only exception is the front part of their lower jaw, which is typically white.
The tailstock may also have pale or white colored patches.
The bowhead has a thick layer of fat under its skin.
The whale’s blubber, which measures between 43 and 50 centimeters (17–19.5 inches) is the thickest of any animal.
Habitat and Distribution
The bowhead whale lives in the Northern Hemisphere, specifically in the Arctic and subarctic waters, primarily between latitudes 60° and 75° north of the equator.
It has been nicknamed the polar whale due to this distribution and is the only baleen whale known to inhabit this region.
They are well-adapted to the extreme conditions of these high-latitude environments.
Unlike other whale species, bowheads are well adapted to life amidst the Arctic sea ice.
Their robust heads can break through thick ice, allowing them to surface and breathe air in areas that are covered by ice for much of the year.
They live in mostly shallow coastal water less than 200m deep.
Bowhead whales are migratory species with a distribution that follows the forming and melting of sea ice.
For instance, the Alaskan population of this whale spends the winter months in the southwestern Bering Sea.
Then, as the sea ice begins to melt in spring, they migrate northwards into the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.
Behavior and Social Structure
Bowhead whales are not particularly fast swimmers.
This is understandable since they have to conserve most of their energy to survive in such extreme environments.
The average cruising speed of this whale is about two to five kilometers per hour (1–3 miles per hour).
This may increase to about 4.0 to 9.0 km/h when feeding and up to 10 km/h (6.2 mph) when the whale is trying to escape from danger.
Bowheads are not highly territorial.
They move around often, and their location is often influenced by the distribution of sea ice and the seasonal availability of prey.
They are not social as well.
These whales are often found alone or in small pods of about six individuals.
As a cetacean, the bowhead whale has to surface regularly to breathe.
A dive is typically limited to about nine to 18 minutes, but they may remain submerged for up to an hour in rare cases.
The bowhead can dive to depths of up to 150 meters (500 feet).
Bowhead whales are highly migratory species.
They travel northward to high-latitude areas during the summer months.
This allows them to take advantage of the melted ice and increase productivity in these regions.
During the winter months, bowhead sharks may move southwards to ice-free waters for breeding or calving.
Bowheads are highly vocal whales.
They communicate with low-frequency sounds, typically below 1,000 Hertz.
Bowheads make whale sounds while feeding, traveling, or socializing with other whales.
They may also produce more intense calls to navigate during migration season and while breeding.
Diet and Feeding
Like other baleen whales, the bowhead whale is a filter feeder.
It has a large mouth that makes up about one-third of its entire body length.
This enormous mouth has a large baleen, with hundreds of overlapping plates for sieving food out of the water.
The bowhead whale’s baleen is the largest of any whale species.
Bowhead whales primarily eat small organisms like zooplankton and other tiny marine invertebrates.
Their diet mainly consists of tiny organisms like copepods, amphipods, and krill.
The bowhead whale feeds by swimming forward with its mouth wide open.
As it swims, water passes through the fine hairs of the baleen plates, tapping tiny organisms in the whale’s mouth, which are then swallowed.
Adult bowheads consume up to 1.8 tonnes of food per day.
Like other Arctic species, bowhead whales can go for long periods without eating.
They rely on their thick layer of blubber to sustain their energy needs during periods of reduced feeding, such as during migration or in icy conditions,
Reproduction and Life Cycle
Bowhead whales become sexually mature when they’re about 10 to 15 years old.
At this age, they’re typically around 35 to 45 feet long.
Mating can occur at any time of the year, but it usually starts in late winter or early spring through the summer season.
Bowhead whales may pair up to mate or form small groups with several males and one or two females.
Conception occurs most commonly in March.
They have a long gestation period that may last for about 13 to 14 months.
Calves are typically born between April and June, during the whale’s spring migration.
Females give birth to just one calf every three to four years
Calves may be up to 13 feet long at birth and weigh about 2,000 pounds.
They’re born in the water and can swim right away.
Bowhead whale mothers form a very close attachment to their young.
The calf is fed with fat-rich milk from the mother for about a year.
They’re born with a thick layer of blubber, which increases significantly thanks to the mother’s fat-rich milk.
Bowhead whale calves grow to lengths of up to 8.2 meters (26 feet) within the first year.
This whale has a very long lifespan.
They can live for up to 200 years, which is the longest lifespan of any marine mammal.
Ecological Role and Interactions
While bowhead whales don’t actively hunt prey, they’re still considered predators and have a significant impact on the local Arctic ecosystem.
As a filter feeder, the bowhead whale’s feeding activities regulate the population of planktonic organisms such as copepods, amphipods, and krill in their ecosystem.
By consuming these small organisms, the whale helps maintain a balance in the marine food web.
Large animals like whales also contribute to the return of nutrients back into the ecosystem when they die or excrete waste.
The nutrients released during defecation can enhance phytoplankton growth.
Their carcass also serves as food for several scavengers within their ecosystem
The bowhead whale lives in icy cold waters that are covered in ice for most of the year.
The whale’s head can break through the sea ice efficiently, creating and maintaining open water areas.
This benefits other marine animals in the water that rely on these gaps for access to air and sunlight.
Conservation Status and Threats
The bowhead whale is currently listed as a species of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of endangered animals.
This means this species is not at a significant risk of extinction.
They still face significant human-induced threats from entanglement in fishing gear, ship strikes, underwater noise, and other disturbances caused by the expansion of shipping, fishing, and oil exploration activities.
Bowhead whales faced bigger threats in the past, mainly from commercial whaling activities.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, commercial whaling reduced the population of bowhead whales to historically low levels.
Before their commercial exploitation, bowhead whales had a population of up to 50,000, with up to 23,000 of them living in US waters.
By the 1920s, there were only about 3,000 individuals left.
To keep the species from going extinct, the bowhead species was listed as endangered under the 1970 Endangered Species Conservation Act
They were also categorized as depleted in the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
This legislation put an end to commercial whaling and has aided the species’ recovery.
The United States now has the largest population of bowheads in the world, with up to 12,505 individuals living in the Western Arctic when they were last counted in 2019.
However, the Okhotsk Sea population of this whale species still has a dangerously low population, with just a few hundred individuals.
Other local populations, such as the Svalbard and Baffin Bay-Davis Strait stock, are at critically low levels as well.
Unique Adaptations and Survival Strategies
The bowhead whale’s most distinctive feature is its massive bow-shaped head.
This is an adaptation for breaking through sea ice, which allows the whale to create breathing holes in the water and access open waters even in icy conditions.
This is one of the most important adaptations that aid the survival of this species in the cold Arctic environment where it lives.
Another adaptation to the cold temperature of the Arctic region is the thick layer of blubber beneath the whale’s skin.
The blubber layer keeps the whale warm in the cold Arctic waters.
It also assists in buoyancy and acts as an energy reserve during prolonged periods of reduced feeding
Bowheads also have a very slow metabolism.
This contributes to the large size and longevity of this species, allowing them to live for several years and live through seasonal changes in prey availability and other adverse conditions.
Cultural Significance and Human Interactions
Bowhead whales are among the most important animals in the Arctic region.
Consequently, they’re well-known by the indigenous people of the Arctic, including Alaska Native communities and Inuit populations.
Indigenous people hunted this whale even before commercial whaling of bowheads began in the 16th century.
There are paleo-Eskimo sites dating back to 4000 BC that showed evidence of bowhead whales being eaten by natives.
Inuit people living in the Pacific region developed tools for hunting bowhead whales specifically.
The whale’s meat provided food, while the blubber was used for fuel by these natives.
When commercial whaling began in the region, the bowhead whale was one of the main targets.
The whale’s slow speed and its tendency to float after death made it an ideal target for whaling ships.
It was hunted for blubber, meat, oil, bones, and its baleen, driving the population to critically low levels.
In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of bowheads both in the ecological and cultural context.
This has led to a shift towards active conservation and sustainable management of this species in collaboration with indigenous communities.
Some native communities continue the tradition of hunting bowhead whales.
But this is on a subsistence level, with limited annual quotas.
Future Prospects and Research
As the longest-living mammal species, scientists are intrigued about the bowhead whale’s longevity.
Studies are underway to better understand the genetic and environmental factors that allow the species to live for so long.
Although bowhead whales have more cells than humans, studies show that these cells show a higher resistance to aging and cancer compared to human cells.
Scientists have been able to map the complete genome of the bowhead whale to identify the specific gene alleles responsible for its longevity.
Future studies of these gene mutations will aid our understanding of DNA repair and cancer resistance in this species.
The knowledge gained from these studies will prove valuable to cancer prevention and slowing down natural aging in humans.
Scientists are also interested in the bowhead whale’s ecological adaptations, including its thermoregulatory ability and other attributes that aid its survival in the cold Arctic region where it lives.
Future research will also explore the impact of climate change on this Arctic species.
Bowhead whales are among the few animal species that seem to be benefiting from climate change currently.
As global temperature continues to rise and more sea ice melts, the whale will get more access to breathing holes and productive waters.
However, experts are not sure if the positives of this change will outweigh the negatives in the coming years.
The bowhead whale is a species of baleen whale native to the Arctic and subarctic region.
The large whale is named after its steeply arched head and mouth, which are shaped like an archer’s bow.
It is one of the largest and heaviest whale species, with a thick layer of blubber that aids its survival in the cold arctic waters where it lives.
As a filter-feeder, the baleen whale contributes to the balance of the arctic ecosystem where it lives.
In the past, whaling activities drove the bowhead whale to the brink of extinction.
However, the species is currently making a comeback thanks to the concerted efforts of conservationists, governments, and indigenous communities in the regions where this whale is found.