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Marine mammals are a diverse group of 120 species of mammal that are primarily ocean-dwelling or depend on the ocean for food. They include the cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), the sirenians (manatees and dugong), the pinnipeds (true seals, eared seals and walrus), and several otters (the sea otter and marine otter). The polar bear, while not aquatic, is also usually considered a marine mammal because it lives on sea ice for most or all of the year.
Marine mammals evolved from land dwelling ancestors and share several adaptive features for life at sea such as generally large size, hydrodynamic body shapes, modified appendages and various thermoregulatory adaptations. Whales are the largest mammals in the world. Different species are, however, adapted to marine life to varying degrees. The most fully adapted are the cetaceans and the sirenians, which cannot live on land.
Despite the fact that marine mammals are highly recognizable charismatic megafauna, many populations are vulnerable or endangered due to a history of commercial use for blubber, meat, ivory and fur. Most species are currently in protection from commercial use.
There are some 120 extant species of marine mammals, generally sub-divided into the five groups bold-faced below. Each group descended from a different land-based ancestor. The morphological similarities between these diverse groups are a result of convergent and parallel evolution. For example, although whales and seals have some similarities in shape, whales are more closely related to deer than they are to seals.
- Order Sirenia: Sirenians, belonging to Afrotheria, a group that includes elephants and hyraxes
- family Trichechidae: manatees (3 species, however, only one is actually a marine mammal)
- family Dugongidae: dugong (1 species)
- Order Cetacea: Cetaceans, belonging to Cetartiodactyla, a group that includes hippopotamuses, deer, and pigs.
- Order Carnivora,
- superfamily Pinnipedia, belonging to Caniformia descended from a bear-like ancestor.
- family Mustelidae, belonging to Caniformia and most closely related to other otters and weasels
- sea otter (Enhydra lutris)
- marine otter (Lontra felina)
- family Ursidae, belonging to
- polar bear (Ursus maritimus), belonging to Caniformia and most closely related to other bears, particularly the brown bear
- Order Desmostylia
Several groups of marine mammals existed in the past that are not alive today. In addition to the ancestors of the modern day whales, seals, and manatees, there existed desmostylians, cousins of the manatees, and Kolponomos, a species of clam-eating marine bears not related to the modern polar bear. A Polar Bear weighs up to 1 ton.
Since mammals originally evolved on land, their spines are optimized for running, allowing for up-and-down but only little sideways motion. Therefore, marine mammals typically swim by moving their spine up and down. By contrast, fish normally swim by moving their spine sideways. For this reason, fish mostly have vertical caudal (tail) fins, while marine mammals have horizontal caudal fins.
Some of the primary differences between marine mammals and other marine life are:
- Marine mammals breathe air, while most other marine animals extract oxygen from water.
- Marine mammals have hair. Cetaceans have little or no hair, usually a very few bristles retained around the head or mouth. All members of the Carnivora have a coat of fur or hair, but it is far thicker and more important for thermoregulation in sea otters and polar bears than in seals or sea lions. Thick layers of fur contribute to drag while swimming, and slow down a swimming mammal, giving it a disadvantage in speed.
- Marine mammals have thick layers of blubber used to insulate their bodies and prevent heat loss. Sea otters and polar bears are exceptions, relying more on fur and behavior to stave off hypothermia.
- Marine mammals give birth. Most marine mammals give birth to one calf or pup at a time.
- Marine mammals feed off milk as young. Maternal care is extremely important to the survival of offspring that need to develop a thick insulating layer of blubber. The milk from the mammary glands of marine mammals often exceeds 40-50% fat content to support the development of blubber.
- Marine mammals maintain a high internal body temperature. Unlike most other marine life, marine mammals carefully maintain a core temperature much higher than their environment. Blubber, thick coats of fur, bubbles of air between skin and water, countercurrent exchange, and behaviors such as hauling out, are all adaptations that aid marine mammals in retention of body heat.
The polar bear spends a large portion of its time in a marine environment, albeit a frozen one. When it does swim in the open sea it is extremely proficient and has been shown to cover 74 km in a day. For these reasons, some scientists regard it as a marine mammal.
- Hoelzel, A. R. (Ed.) 2002. Marine mammal biology: an evolutionary approach. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0632 05232 5
- A 2005 Report by the National Academy of Sciences entitled Marine Mammal Populations and Ocean Noise, is available for free online reading and research
- University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections -- Freshwater and Marine Image Bank -- Aquatic Mammals An ongoing digital collection of images related to marine and aquatic mammals.
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