Graphic showing how to tell a male and female beluga whale apart

Beluga Bits relies on visual data that anyone in the world with access to the internet can see and classify, helping scientists learn more about these fascinating creatures.

7/21/2020 1:28:58 PM

Beluga Bits: Citizen Science Project

The Arctic is an incredible ecosystem with many species that have adapted to survive and even thrive in the harsh environment. At Polar Bears International we want to inspire people to care about the Arctic, and through our passion for wildlife and unique home base in Churchill, Manitoba—the Polar Bear Capital of the World—we have been able to partner with Explore.org to bring viewers an immersive and inspiring view into the underwater world of beluga whales—a beloved seasonal visitor to the Churchill River estuary.

So, when the Assiniboine Park Zoo suggested we use the infrastructure of the Beluga Cam to team up on a research project, we were thrilled. The collaborative research project, called Beluga Bits, is a citizen science project that gives viewers the opportunity to actively participate in the classification and identification of belugas.

We sat down with Dr. Stephen Petersen of the Assiniboine Park Zoo, which is part of our Arctic Ambassador Center network, to learn more.

How did the idea for Beluga Bits begin, and how many years has this research project been collecting data?

Like many projects, Beluga Bits started with a lot of questions about beluga whales followed by putting the pieces together to make it work. I had been studying belugas and other Arctic marine mammals for a few years and happened to be working on another project in Churchill with Meagan Hainstock looking at beluga behavior. While we were out on the water, we would get these tantalizing glimpses of belugas who had scars and marks that we thought could be used for photo identification, a common way to study other whales non-invasively. Typically, with other whale species, you can use markings on the dorsal fins or the contrast of their body color with scarring to help identify them. Belugas on the other hand are much harder to identify given that they don’t have dorsal fins and are white as adults. While we were in Churchill and chatting with colleagues at PBI, we were introduced to the Beluga Cam, which PBI partners on with Explore.org. It didn’t take very long watching the live stream to realize that this could be an amazing data source for capturing the full bodies of beluga whales underwater. In fact, we realized we could often see a lot more than just the individual marks—because the beluga would often swim upside down, we could see their “bits”—and thus Beluga Bits was born. It still took a couple of years to get to where we are today with the Explore.org community collecting snapshots that we then use in our Zooniverse.org project to get folks from around the world to help classify.

The first year of data was 2016 and we have collected data each year since. In 2019, we also started to collect the entire video stream right at the boat and we are exploring using machine learning to process all those videos before they get uploaded to Zooniverse.org. We hope to continue this project into the future as this is a great way to monitor a beluga population in the wild with very little impact on the animals.

How can viewers or people passionate about beluga whales participate in Beluga Bits?

There are a couple of ways that folks can get involved and encounter more virtual belugas. The first is to collect snapshots of belugas from the Explore.org Beluga Cam this July and August. The second way is to help classify the images on the Beluga Bits project, found here. When you help with Beluga Bits you are presented with a photo and just need to answer three questions: Is there a beluga in the photo? Can you see its bits? Do you see any major markings that we can use for photo ID? Every classification helps us out!

Have you been able to deduct any findings from the data yet? What do you hope to learn?

While the project has been collecting photos for four years, we just finished classifying the 2016 to 2018 dataset last December. Students and collaborators are now working with these data to learn about beluga biology and social structure. Although it is known that belugas return to the same estuaries and rivers each year, we were all very excited to re-sight an adult male beluga last season (2019), shown below, that was first observed on the underwater cameras in 2016.

Image of first beluga bits photo ID recapture

How will the data from this project inform conservation efforts?

It is typically very expensive to monitor Arctic marine mammals like belugas (and polar bears), but we hope that over time this project will help in the monitoring of this population so management action can be put in place before numbers decline. We think that we will be able to track body condition (how much blubber a whale has), productivity (how many calves are born each year), and emerging threats to this population just by watching them underwater. Conservation scientists are very interested in the threats belugas face - if we see a lot of a certain type of injury we may be able to infer the cause and work to reduce the threat.

I’ve heard that both belugas and polar bears depend on sea ice for survival. Why is sea ice important to beluga whales?

Belugas are highly adapted to life in and around sea ice. We see them in Churchill during the summer so there is usually not much ice around but for most of the year belugas live in areas of heavy ice cover. One of the hypotheses as to why thousands of belugas are found in the rivers of Hudson Bay in the summer is that ice cover provides protection from killer whales (who require open water) and without it they need to be able to retreat to areas that are safe from killer whales, like rivers. Sea ice also forms the base of the food chain for many beluga populations and while belugas are near the top of the food web, they rely on algae, zooplankton, and fishes that are parts of the Arctic ecosystem.

Are belugas impacted by climate change? If yes, how?

That is a great question without an easy answer. We know belugas are Arctic-adapted species so if the habitat becomes less like the Arctic they will face increased pressures. We also know that belugas are found farther south than Churchill in places like the St. Lawrence River in eastern Canada. These belugas are not doing very well and are listed as Endangered but we are not sure how much of that is climate related and how much is due to other human activities. We suspect that as the habitat changes due to climate warming, belugas will face increasing threats as prey distribution and abundance changes, as the ocean becomes more acidic and noisy, and as people expand their activities.

Many research projects have been canceled or delayed by the global COVID 19 pandemic. Is this project being impacted? Why or why not?

We consider ourselves to be very fortunate because COVID has actually helped this project to a certain extent. With folks on lockdown and schools shut, people have been looking for things to do from home and many have found the Beluga Bits project online. We started to see an increase in the number of classifications per day at the end of March and since mid-April we have had over 5000 classifications per day, with a record day of 40,000 classifications! In terms of collecting data this year, we are really fortunate to have partners like PBI who have staff in Churchill to run the Beluga Boat.

If there is one thing you want viewers to take away from Beluga Bits or the Beluga Cam what would that be?

That belugas are awesome!

The Beluga Cam offers us a glimpse into their underwater world; we are able to see how intelligent and social they are. They live in what many people consider a pretty harsh environment, but they are perfectly at home in these Arctic waters, even migrating thousands of kilometers to and from their wintering area every year and spending most of that time in almost completely ice-covered waters with little or no sunlight. Yet they are surviving and thriving! This glimpse into the underwater world of the Churchill River estuary also offers us opportunities to see a whole ecosystem in action. No wonder people flock to Churchill from all over the world to see this very special place in person! 

At Polar Bears International we are grateful to our partners and collaborators, like the Assiniboine Park Zoo and Explore.org, that allow us all to have a greater impact on conservation and climate action. By working together, we know that we can do more on behalf of polar bears, beluga whales, and all the species that call the Arctic home. 

Share this


Stay in the Loop

Sign up to receive polar bear news and updates.

Sign Up!

Thank you for the support!