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.
Ronan, a California sea lion found stranded on scenic Highway 1, is a dancing sensation who continues to improve her grooves, shedding light on why some animals can move to a beat while others have the proverbial two left feet.
Both Ronan and a famous dancing cockatoo named Snowball might be hearing and feeling beats. Videos that went viral on YouTube show them dancing to such tunes as "Boogie Wonderland" and a Michael Jackson medley.
"There's a reason that popular dance music tends to have very heavy bass," Peter Cook, who studies Ronan, told Discovery News. "The combination of feeling and hearing the beat makes it easier to perceive and match with movement."
Cook, a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University, reported on the beat-keeping sea lion's surprising rhythmic ability at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Chicago.
When Cook was first introduced to Ronan, he noticed how intelligent this particular sea lion was, and how she has "boundless enthusiasm and drive for taking on new and challenging training."
At first, Ronan tended to bob her head slightly behind faster beats and slightly ahead of slower beats.
"More recently," Cook said, "this has almost completely disappeared, and she now tends to bob almost exactly on the beat with most stimuli, suggesting that her rhythmic capability is improving with practice."
The skill requires complicated movements and brain processing. First, the individual has to perceive rhythm in sound and/or vibration. Next, a tight synchrony between perceptual and bodily movement systems needs to happen to produce regular movements (i.e. dancing) that coincide with the sound/vibration signals. On top of that, the dancer needs to make quick adjustments for things like changes of rate in the music.
"Although beat-keeping is complex, I believe the necessary neurological equipment is available in most mammals and birds," Cook said.
Ronan, the dancing sea lion, can feel the beat.C. Reichmuth
The anatomy of most fish and reptiles is hardly suitable for dancing. Even Ronan has certain limitations, preferring head bobbing to flipper waving, for example, since the former is easier and allows for more flexibility.
Humans, though, aren't the only ones to use dancing in social situations to attract mates and admiration from onlookers.
Irena Schulz, director of the non-profit avian education organization Bird Lovers Only that houses Snowball, says that male cockatoos "display dance-like and other rhythmic behaviors to attract females." Some, for example, rhythmically sway, while others drum on tree branches with a stick to get a female’s attention.
Certain species are then naturally better at keeping a beat. Cook, Schulz and others are also trying to determine if a talent for vocal mimicry also predicts dancing ability, since both skills require matching incoming sound info with outgoing behaviors (vocalizing or grooving).
Sea lions, however, are not known to do vocal mimicry and have a limited repertoire of sounds, so it could be that a capacity for complex vocal learning is not necessary to boogie.
Yet another factor is the individual animal. Just as some people are better dancers than others, some particular animals are better beat-keepers than other members of their own species.
Musical tastes also come into play. Schulz said that she conducted musical therapy studies involving Snowball and an OCD cockatoo that used to pluck her feathers out. Schulz discovered that "the type of music that the OCD bird found to be calming was actually making Snowball more agitated/stir crazy. Likewise, the music that made the OCD parrot most agitated was the music that Snowball enjoyed most."
As she said, "What is good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander."