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A Japanese researcher says he taught a beluga to "talk" by using these sounds to identify three different objects, offering hope that humans may one day be able to communicate effectively with sea mammals.A similar observation has been made by Canadian researchers, where a beluga which died in 2007 "talked" when he was still a subadult.
The family Monodontidae separated relatively early from the other odontoceti; it split from the Delphinoidea between 11 and 15 million years ago, and from the Phocoenidae, its closest relatives in evolutionary terms, more recently still.
Counter-evidence to this theory comes from the finding in 1849 of fossilised beluga bones in Vermont in the United States, 240 km (150 mi) from the Atlantic Ocean.
Its sense of hearing is highly developed and its echolocation allows it to move about and find blowholes under sheet ice.
Belugas are gregarious and form groups of up to 10 animals on average, although during the summer, they can gather in the hundreds or even thousands in estuaries and shallow coastal areas.
The majority of belugas live in the Arctic Ocean and the seas and coasts around North America, Russia and Greenland; their worldwide population is thought to number around 150,000.
They are migratory and the majority of groups spend the winter around the Arctic ice cap; when the sea ice melts in summer, they move to warmer river estuaries and coastal areas.
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It possesses a distinctive protuberance at the front of its head which houses an echolocation organ called the melon, which in this species is large and deformable.
The beluga's body size is between that of a dolphin's and a true whale's, with males growing up to 5.5 m (18 ft) long and weighing up to 1,600 kg (3,530 lb). A large percentage of its weight is blubber, as is true of many cetaceans.
The name of the genus, Delphinapterus, means "dolphin without fin" (from the Greek δελφίν (delphin), dolphin and απτερος (apteros), without fin) and the species name leucas means "white" (from the Greek λευκας (leukas), white).