Bowhead whale

Drag to rotate the specimen

Bowhead whale

Balaena mysticetus

The Bowhead whale (its scientific name being Balaena mysticetus) is a large marine mammal that has adapted to living in and around Arctic sea ice. Scientists believe that bowhead whales are among the longest living mammals on the planet. After 50 years of age, bowhead whales continue to grow in size while their life-span is believed to be over 100 years old.

Image: A portion of a bowhead whale’s skull.

3D View: Bowhead whale
A bowhead whale's tail.

Why this species is important

Bowhead whales were and still are an important traditional source of food, as well as building and tool-making materials.  In the 1800s, many European and North American countries used bowhead whale oil for lamps and lubrication and whale baleen for carriage whips, corsets, latticework, and screens. Hunted to near extinction, laws were set in place making it illegal to hunt these mammals.





Climate change and the bowhead whale

Bowhead whales spend their entire life in Arctic waters. Only the thickness of the sea ice restricts the northern limit of bowhead whale distribution. Due to their ability to navigate cold waters, they have been able to maintain their territories.

As the air temperature increases in the Arctic due to climate change, the waters of the Arctic are also expected to warm up. Scientists do not know how this will impact the bowhead whale. Many fear that as the water warms, predators such as the killer whale will be able to enter and survive in areas where they could not before. This could have a major impact on bowhead whale populations as they would face new threats and predation they have never faced before.

Air temperature is directly related to water temperature. This illustration depicts the planet’s air temperature and how it is expected to change over a 90 year period. Sliding the scale from left (2000) to right (2090), the air temperature increases.  As the climate warms the average air temperature will rise by at least 12°C.

A map showing an increase in air temperature by 12C between the years 2000 and 2090.
2090 (*projected air temperature)
2000 (air temperature)

Global warming factors


An increase in global warming would see bowhead whales moving further north.  As the ice in the many channels of the Northwest Passage decreases, eastern and western populations of bowhead whales will likely overlap, causing a major change to their distribution.

Although humans harvest a few bowheads each year, killer whales travelling in pods are natural predators of bowhead whales. The northward movement of killer whales, as the Arctic waters lose their ice cover, may lead to increased predation on bowhead whales.


Arctic adaptations


As bowhead whales live only in the Arctic region, they have adapted to the region’s cold climate. Adaptations include a thick blubber that provides the whale with insulation against the cold water; the absence of a dorsal, or back, fin, which allows the whale to surface through the sea ice without suffering injury; and a massive head that can break through the ice for a breathing hole.


Food for thought


Hanging from the roof of a bowhead whale’s mouth are huge plates of baleen. The head and upper jaw are bow-shaped to accommodate the baleen, hence its name.

Baleen is made of keratin, the same substance found in human fingernails and hair. The baleen plates are used in feeding to filter out water and trap small organisms known as krill or plankton. Bowhead whales open their large mouths to allow a large amount of water to enter. The whale then pushes the water out through the baleen with its tongue and the mass of small organisms is swallowed.