Genetic Studies on Belugas in Alaska

Collaborators Greg O’Corry-Crowe, beluga hunters throughout Alaska, Robert Suydam, Lori Quakenbush
Funding NOAA, North Slope Borough (NSB)


Skin samples from the harvested beluga whales at Point Lay were used to obtain DNA for genetic studies. Dr. Greg O’Corry-Crowe compared the genetics of the Point Lay belugas to other beluga stocks in Alaska and western Canada in order to learn more about the population structure, breeding patterns, and migration of animals between stocks. Traditionally, it was thought that there were five stocks in the western Arctic but this work has provided evidence that may change the number to six stocks.

Conclusions from the genetics work so far:

  • There are significant differences between groups that summer together, indicating that these animals are very faithful to these summer concentration areas, returning every year.
  • There are some similarities among the stocks of beluga in western and northern Alaska, indicating that there is some movement of individual whales between groups. The stock in Cook Inlet stock is genetically quite different from the other stocks.
  • It was possible to look at an individual whale’s DNA and have a good idea of what stock it came from originally.
  • Belugas harvested in Kotzebue Sound appear to be a unique stock. Those whales are genetically different from the eastern Chukchi group, which gather near Point Lay early in the summer. These animals used to be considered as one stock but may need to be separated into two stocks based on the genetic information. If they are separated, they will need to be managed as separate groups to ensure harvests are sustainable.


  • O’Corry-Crowe, G.M., Suydam, R.S., Rosenberg, A., Frost, K.J., and Dizon, A.E. 1997. Phylogeography, population structure and dispersal patterns of the beluga whale Delphinapterus leucas in the western Nearctic revealed by mitochondrial DNA. Molecular Ecology 6:955-970.
  • O’Corry-Crowe, G.M., Dizon, A.E., Suydam, R.S., and Lowry, L.F. 2002. Molecular genetic studies of population structure and movement patterns in a migratory species: the beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas). Pages 53-64. In: C.J. Pfeiffer (ed.). Molecular and Cell Biology of Marine Mammals. Kreiger Publishing Company, Malabar, Florida.
  • O’Corry-Crowe G, Mahoney AR, Suydam R, Quakenbush L, Whiting A, Lowry L, Harwood L. 2016. Genetic profiling links changing sea-ice to shifting beluga whale migration patterns. Biol. Lett. 12:20160404.
  • O’Corry-Crowe, Suydam R, Quakenbush L, Potgieter B, Harwood L, Litovka D, Ferrer T, Citta J, Burkanov V, Frost K, Mahoney B. 2018. Migratory culture, population structure and stock identity in North Pacific beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas). PLOS ONE 13(3): e0194201.
  • O’Corry-Crowe G, Suydam R, Quakenbush L, Smith TG, Lydersen C, Kovacs KM, Orr J, Harwood L, Litovka D, Ferrer, T. 2020. Group structure and kinship in beluga whale societies. Scientific Reports 10:11462.
  • O’Corry-Crowe G, Ferrer T, Citta JJ, Suydam R, Quakenbush L, Burns JJ, Monroy J, Whiting A, Seaman G, Goodwin W, Meyer M, Rodgers S, Frost KJ. 2021. Genetic history of stock identify of beluga whales in Kotzebue sound. Polar Research. Special Issue on beluga whales. Polar Research 2021, 40, 7623.

Map of summer ranges for Alaska Beluga Whale Stocks. Courtesy of Justin Crawford, ADFG


Banner photo credit: Craig George

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