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The Georgia Aquarium’s newborn beluga whale has died

A beluga whale calf born last month at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta has died. In recent weeks, the whale stopped nursing and its health deteriorated, authorities say. (REUTERS)

From the first moments a baby beluga whale is born in captivity, veterinarians cautiously track the animal's health and watch for particular milestones that signal healthy development.

"The first breath of life, and the calf being able to achieve that by swimming to the surface on its own, is one of those first milestones," Tonya Clauss, director of animal health at the Georgia Aquarium, said in a YouTube video released after a baby beluga whale was born there last month. "We were just thrilled to see that take place. Bonding with Maris the way the calf has done is another big milestone and we are seeing very good evidence that that continues."

[Meet the Georgia Aquarium’s adorable new baby beluga, a little white whale on the go]

Despite the early signs of progress for the unnamed, 126-pound calf -- born in the early hours of Sunday, May 10 -- the optimism did not last.

The calf began nursing from her mother, Maris, five days after birth, but the aquarium staff noticed the animal "was not gaining sufficient weight," according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

The newborn was only a single pound above her birth weight as of last week, even as her handlers supplemented her diet with formula mimicking beluga milk, the AJC reported.

On Friday, a mere 26 days after her birth, the calf died, according to statement released by the aquarium.

" the early morning hours of June 5, the calf began showing signs of lethargy and needed assistance to swim," the statement said. "While next to her mother and in the arms of her dedicated caregivers, the calf took her last breath, and her heart stopped just after 7:00 a.m."

The statement said preliminary diagnostics suggest the calf suffered from gastrointestinal issues that were "preventing her from properly absorbing and assimilating nutrients that she needed to grow." The aquarium staff, it noted, consulted with experts in the field of veterinary medicine from around the country in hopes of keeping the newborn alive.

The statement said the staff's primary concern has shifted to the well-being of Maris, who is working with trainers and socializing with other belugas. The aquarium is conducting an autopsy on the newborns remains to try find an exact cause of death, which may be determined, the statement noted.

The pregnancy was the second for Maris, the aquarium said. The 20-year-old whale gave birth to a female whale calf in 2012 that died after less than a week.

Despite the deaths, aquarium staff said the newborns' brief lives are not without value.

"Even though this calf had a short life, Georgia Aquarium had the rare opportunity to advance our knowledge about the reproductive health of beluga whales," said Eric Gaglione, the director of zoological operations, mammals and birds. "We can share this with other accredited aquariums that care for belugas."

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