Mammals are the most obvious group of animals on land, but they are relatively rare in marine environments. There are just a few types of mammals whose bodies have become specialized for marine life. Among these are the cetaceans, a group that includes whales and dolphins, porpoises, and dugongs.
Marine Mammal Anatomy
Mammals are warmblooded vertebrates that have hair and breathe air. All females of this group have milk-producing mammary glands with which to feed their young. Mammals also have a diaphragm that pulls air into the lungs and a four-chambered heart for efficient circulation of blood. The teeth of mammals are specialized by size and shape for particular uses.
Marine mammals are subdivided into four categories: cetaceans, animals that spend their entire lives in the ocean; sirenians, herbivorous ocean mammals; pinnipeds, web-footed mammals; and marine otters. Animals in all four categories have the same characteristics as terrestrial mammals, as well as some special adaptations that enable them to survive in their watery environment.
The cetaceans, which include whales, dolphins, and porpoises, have streamlined bodies, horizontal tail flukes, and paddle-like flippers that enable them to move quickly through the water. Layers of blubber (subcutaneous fat) insulate their bodies and act as storage places for large quantities of energy. Their noses (blowholes) are located on the tops of their heads so air can be inhaled as soon as the organism surfaces above the water.
Manatees and dugongs are the only sirenians. These docile, slow-moving herbivores lack a dorsal fin or hind limbs but are equipped with front limbs that move at the elbow, as well as with a flattened tail. Their powerful tails propel them through the water, while the front limbs act as paddles for steering.
The pinnipeds—seals, sea lions, and walruses—are carnivores that have webbed feet. Although very awkward on land, the pinnipeds are agile and aggressive hunters in the water. This group of marine mammals is protected from the cold by hair and blubber. During deepwater dives, their bodies are able to restrict blood flow to vital organs and slow their heart rates to only a few beats a minute, strategies that reduce oxygen consumption. All pinnipeds come onto land or ice at breeding time.
The sea otters spend their entire lives at sea and only come ashore during storms. They are much smaller than the other marine mammals. Even though otters are very agile swimmers and divers, they are clumsy on shore. Their back feet, which are flipperlike and fully webbed, are larger than their front feet. Internally, their bodies are adapted to deal with the salt in seawater with enlarged kidneys that can eliminate the excess salt.
Animals that are described as warm blooded, or endothermic, maintain a constant internal temperature, even when exposed to extreme temperatures in their environment. In mammals, this internal temperature is about 97°F (36°C), while in birds, it is warmer, around 108°F (42°C).
Warm-blooded animals have developed several physiological and behavioral modifications that help regulate body temperature. Since their bodies generate heat by converting food into energy, they must take in enough food to fuel a constant body temperature. Once heat is produced, endotherms conserve it with insulating adaptations such as hair, feathers, or layers of fat. In extreme cold, they also shiver, a mechanism that generates additional heat.
Heart rate and rate of respiration in warm-blooded animals does not depend on the temperature of the surroundings. For this reason, they can be as active on a cold winter night as they are during a summer day. This is a real advantage that enables warm-blooded animals to actively look for food year round.
The internal temperature of coldblooded, or ectothermic, animals is the same as the temperature of their surroundings. In other words, when it is hot outside, they are hot, and when it is cold outside, they are cold. In very hot environments the blood temperature of some cold-blooded animals can rise far above the blood temperature of warmblooded organisms. Furthermore, their respiration rate is dependent on the temperature of their surroundings. To warm up and speed their metabolism, cold-blooded animals often bask in the sun. Therefore, cold-blooded animals such as fish, amphibians, and reptiles, tend to be much more active in warm environments than in cold conditions.