Mauyak, the 41-year-old beluga whale matriarch and one of the most popular animals at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, died over the weekend, the aquarium announced.
The whale, whose name means “soft snow” in the indigenous language of Inuit, arrived in Chicago in 1997 after coming from the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. Born in 1981, Mauyak came to be part of Shedd’s beluga whale breeding program.
Since her arrival, she gave birth to four calves. Although she was relatively small for a whale at 11-feet long and 1,500 pounds, the aquarium said she was “large in impact,” as researchers tracking her pregnancies were able to use data to more accurately identify pregnant whales in the wild.
“She was a very independent whale, extremely playful and was an attentive mom to her calves,” Peggy Sloan, chief animal operations officer for Shedd, said in a statement. “The matriarch of our beluga pod, her passing is heartbreaking to everyone who loves beluga whales. And yet, we are so grateful for what we have learned by caring for her for over three decades – from helping field researchers better understand her species to inform wild populations and their management to their unique world of communication that includes squeals, trills, chirps and amazing mimicking abilities.”
More: Beluga whale that captured worldwide attention in France is euthanized after desperate rescue attempt
Freed: Beluga whale couple travels 6,000 miles to be freed at world’s first open-water sanctuary
What’s everyone talking about?: Sign up for our trending newsletter to get the latest news of the day
The aquarium said Mauyak was frequently seen spyhopping – when aquatic animals position themselves vertically at the water surface – and squirting water. She was easily recognizable among the other eight beluga whales at the zoo because of her dark gray streaks on her otherwise white sides, the aquarium said.
Beluga whales are known for their vocalizations, and Mauyak’s voice was “especially fine, deep foghorn,” the aquarium said.
“She quickly became, and remained throughout her long life, an incredible ambassador for beluga whales, touching the lives of millions of people who were able to look her in the eye, marvel at her beauty, and experience her one-of-a-kind characteristics,” said Shedd senior animal caretaker Megan Vens-Policky.
Found throughout the Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, beluga whales are near endangered species, the aquarium said. The species are vulnerable to many threat like pollution, habitat degradation, oil and gas exploration, disease, predation from killer whales and human disturbance, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
National Geographic says the typical lifespan of a beluga whale is 35 to 50 years, but those in human care live around 30 to 35 years, the aquarium said. Pathologists from the University of Illinois Zoological Pathology Program performed a necropsy on Mauyak “to collect diagnostic samples to continue to gain insight into belugas.”
Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jordan_mendoza5.