Originally designed to live on land, marine mammals are a diverse, charismatic group of animals that include more than 120 species. The animals share key characteristics of land mammals. They have hair, breathe air, give birth to live young, which feed off mother's milk when young. They have warm bodies and usually thick blubber to keep their body temperatures high. The bottlenose dolphin is probably the most widely recognized marine mammal, easily spotted just offshore from beaches around the world. Small groups of 20 or less can live in close proximity to shorelines, but groups living more offshore can reach several hundred. Bottlenose dolphin calves stay with their mothers for up to six years, learning how to hunt and become good dolphin citizens. Full-grown dolphins reach eight to 12 feet in length and can weigh up to 1,430 pounds. The bottlenose dolphin is protected in U.S. waters.
What makes them "marine" depends on the animal. They either live mostly in the sea or, like polar bears, depend on the ocean for food. The largest in the group are whales -- including humpback whales. These massive animals reach up to 50 feet in length and weigh up to 79,000 pounds. To maintain their weight, the animals feed on tons of krill and fish. They neared extinction due to whaling, but have recovered somewhat since a 1966 moratorium on whaling was introduced.
While polar bears live mostly on land or ice, they are excellent swimmers and have been known to swim up to 45 miles a day. The massive animals, weighing up to 1,500 pounds, hunt mostly seals. In recent years, biologists have observed that the bears are swimming now more than ever as melting stretches the distances between Arctic ice flows. Because they depend on sea ice to hunt seals, the polar bear is considered threatened as global warming melts and thins ice in this region.
This member of the weasel family is also the smallest marine mammal, with females weighing about 60 pounds and males weighing up to 90 pounds. They may be small, but they're also clever. They're the only marine mammals known to use tools. They use stones to break open clams and store food they gather in the folds of their armpits! Another feature that sets them apart is their lack of blubber. These marine mammals depend mostly on their fur to stay warm. That feature makes them particularly vulnerable to oil spills, which can compromise their fur's insulating effect.
Immediately recognizable by its long tusks and whiskers, the sea walrus is a hefty, flippered member of the Odobenidae family and is, in fact, the last living member of this group. Since both the males and females have big tusks and not much for teeth, the animals feed by sucking up shellfish from the ocean floor. So, just what are those tusks for? The longer they are (they grow to be up to four feet long in males), the higher an animal is ranked in the group. Males attack each other with their tusks to establish dominance. The ivory appendages are also handy for poking holes in the winter ice and for helping the animals pull themselves out of the water.
Manatees, also known as sea cows, are gentle herbivores that live in marshy areas in tropical and subtropical waters. The average adult manatee can weigh up 1,200 pounds and is around 10 feet long. Because of their slow metabolism, these animals can only survive in warm waters. Due to the unusually long, cold winter this year in part of the southeastern United States, populations of manatees throughout Florida were devastated. During the day, manatees usually like to stay close to the surface. At night, manatees will often sleep about three to 10 feet below sea level. This is why these gentle animals are so often accidentally injured, maimed or killed by passing boats.
Found up and down the North American coastlines, these marine mammals spend half of their lives swimming. Although they can reach up to six feet in length and weigh around 180 pounds, when on land and in plain sight harbor seals may not be easy to spot. Their spotted brown or tan fur allows harbor seals to blend in with sand and rocks. Unlike their very vocal relatives -- sea lions and elephant seals -- harbor seals are quiet creatures that make little noise. They like to hang out on beaches, sand bars and rocks during low tide to bask in the sun and sleep, but they never go far from the water. At the slightest sign of danger, they will quickly slip back under the waves. These expert swimmers have been known to plunge to depths of more than 1,600 feet and stay underwater up to 28 minutes.
A surge in humpback whale strandings in Western Australia is believed to be linked to the poor nutrition of the animals, veterinary researchers said Wednesday.
Autopsies of the mostly calf and juvenile carcasses found the whales were malnourished, Murdoch University researcher Carly Holyoake said at a veterinary conference in Perth.
"Post-mortem examination and analysis of the fat content of blubber samples revealed most calves were in an extremely malnourished state," Holyoake said.
"Most had very low blubber fat, which is required for energy, thermoregulation and for buoyancy.
"One individual also had pneumonia which would have made it difficult to breathe and may have contributed to its death."
While there were about two to three humpback whale strandings annually on the west Australian coast between 1989 and 2007, there was a sharp rise in 2008 to 13, the researchers said.
Strandings then soared to 46 in 2009, with a further 16 whales beachings themselves in 2010, while 2011 saw 17 humpbacks -- of which 14 were calves and three were juveniles -- dying ashore.
Holyoake said the researchers concluded the strandings on Western Australia's southern coast were most likely "due to poor nutrition".
This in turn could be caused by an increase in the commercial fishing of krill -- which humpback whales eat almost exclusively in Antarctica -- and the impact of climate warming on krill numbers.
Humpback whales migrate annually between Antarctic waters and the Australian coast, making their way north for breeding in warmer waters during the southern hemisphere winter.
But the researchers said some female whales failed to make the journey to Western Australia's north coast before their calves arrived, with many giving birth several thousands of kilometres south of known breeding grounds.
"It's likely that a reduction in the abundance and distribution of feed in the Antarctic may have resulted in longer foraging time which led to a delay in migration times and reduced fat reserves in some pregnant cows," she said.