Bowhead whale: how to live that long

Due to their long life expectancy, female Greenland whales are believed to go through a period of menopause

by Lorenzo Ciotti
Bowhead whale: how to live that long

The Bowhead whale was one of the first victims of the whaling industry, and as a result its population decreased significantly before hunting was banned in 1966. There are currently 14,400 of this species: very few, compared to 50,000.

who lived in the same waters before it began to be hunted. The whale has always remained the only species of its genus, ever since Gray's studies in 1821. There is, however, little genetic evidence to support this division into two genera.

In fact, scientists found greater differences between the various species of Balaenoptera than between this species and right whales. Greenland whales are the only whales that spend their entire life in Arctic waters. Those widespread off Alaska spend the winter months in the southwestern parts of the Bering Sea.

In spring they migrate northwards, following the melting of the ice, up to the Chukchi Sea and to that of Beaufort, hunting zooplankton, especially copepods. They are slow swimmers and usually move alone or in small groups, consisting of a maximum of six specimens.

Although they can stay submerged for up to forty minutes, they are not believed to dive to great depths. The discovery of ancient ivory harpoon points found stuck in still living whales in 1993, 1995, 1999 and 2007 triggered further research based on the study of the structure of the whale's eye, studies that led to the confirmation that at least some specimens have reached 150-200 years of age.

In May 2007, the tip of an explosive harpoon was discovered in the neck fat of a 50-ton specimen captured off the coast of Alaska. His analysis determined that it is an arrow-shaped 8.8 cm long projectile manufactured in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a major whaling center, around 1890.

The fact that this whale survived in a similar wound inflicted on her more than a century ago has led researchers to attribute her to an age between 115 and 130 years. Due to their long life expectancy, female Greenland whales are believed to go through a period of menopause. The observation of very large animals without the company of a small support this hypothesis.