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Years ago, whales evolved from land mammals and shared many of their senses with modern-day land mammals. However, some of their senses are unique, allowing them to survive in the oceans.

Whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals have the same senses as land mammals. They have vision, touch, hearing, taste, and smell. Toothed whales are also able to use echolocation.

This article looks at the different senses that marine mammals use. If you want to know more then, please read on.

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North Atlantic Right Whale


Marine mammals are unique. Although they breathe air like other mammals, they need to see underwater and above.

As marine mammals evolved from land mammals, their eyes were originally only adapted for sight on land. The eye evolution was essential to allow them to see not only on land but underwater.

Eyes that are adapted to being able to see in air lose their focus in water. This is because light travels slower in water than it does in air. In water, the light bends when it passes into the water.

Marine mammals have strong muscles around their eyes. These muscles allow the lens to change shape in the eye. The changes in shape enable them to see in the air or underwater.

Land mammals have spherical eyes, whereas marine mammals have elliptical eyes when underwater. The muscles around the eye allow the lens to change from a spherical shape to an oval shape.

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Light levels deep in the ocean are low but strong at the surface. The light intensity and the differences between depths can cause problems.

Marine mammals have adapted to the differences in light intensity between shallow and deep depths. Cetaceans have large pupils. The large pupil can bring in large amounts of light, helping them see in low-light situations.

Marine mammals can contract their eyes to a narrow slit, allowing them to use their eyes at the water’s surface.

Many species of whales and dolphins often turn on their side and use just one eye. This can be seen not only at the surface but at depth. The single eye can move around, giving them a wide vision.

Whales and dolphins can also use both eyes together and see objects close to the front of their mouth.

Scientists have suggested that marine mammals may see a limited amount of colors like red and yellow as water absorbs light. This makes most objects underwater appear bluish-green.

When tested, some dolphins preferred red and yellow objects, so they have varied color vision.

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The further down the ocean you travel, the darker it gets, and light levels get very low. Many species of toothed whales do swim down past depths of 200 meters and feed at these depths.

Many food items they catch at these depths have a chemical process that gives them light. The light is at specific frequencies, and it is thought that the toothed whales have eyes adapted to detect the chemical light.

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The sense of touch to marine mammals is vital, but the information they receive is different from how we perceive the world.

The skin of a cetacean is highly specialized and very complex. The skin contains a system of organized nerve endings. The number of nerve endings in some areas is greater than in others, giving them greater sensitivity.

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Many whales have a scarred look due to the soft skin tearing and ripping. The skin heals fast but leaves scars and scratches.

The skin of a whale helps them to swim much more efficiently. Laminar flow is when each layer of fluid moves smoothly past the adjacent layers. Due to their size, cetaceans need to achieve this over the body to allow them to swim at high speeds and efficiency.

Due to the need for laminar flow when a giant whale is swimming, the body shape needs to adjust. If there is turbulence, the laminar flow does not work, and the whale will not swim efficiently.

Whales use their skin to act as a sensor for the pressure of the water. They can stretch parts of their skin using sensitive skin, keeping their bodies in the correct shape for efficient locomotion.

Skin areas can also tell how fast they swim by sensing a pressure build-up around the jaws. These same areas can also be used to detect low-frequency vibrations.

Marine mammals are air-breathing mammals and cannot breathe underwater. Proper breathing coordination is needed so that only air is taken into the lungs and not a mixture of air and water.

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Cetaceans have their nostrils on top of their heads. These nostrils are also known as blowholes. The nostrils have muscles that are powerful enough to close them while underwater.

Although the nostrils are on top of the head, they still need to be clear of the water to breathe in air. Cetaceans have many nerve endings in an area of skin around the blowhole.

The skin around the blowhole senses changes in pressure. This allows them to open when in the air and not underwater.

Dolphins will blow the water out when 5-10mm close to the surface before breathing in the air once they breach the surface. The complex arrangement of nerve endings picks up the changes in pressure of the water, allowing them to know when they are near the surface.

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Whale calf feeding


The hearing of a cetacean has adapted from hearing in the air to hearing in water and air. As water is denser than air, sound moves about five times faster in water than in air. The difference in density between the water and atmosphere makes it more difficult for sound waves to pass.

There is an acoustic impedance mismatch between air and water, so an air-filled ear is not good underwater.

Cetaceans do not have external ears due to their streamlined shape and need for laminar flow through the water.

Although the ears are not external, they do have ears. They can be seen as small holes behind the eyes. Some species have tiny ear holes just a couple of millimeters wide.

The science of how whales hear is still hotly debated by scientists. Baleen whales have a wax plug that builds over time that transmits sounds heard underwater to the inner ear. The impedance of the waxy build-up matches seawater. This leads scientists to believe that although they can hear underwater, they are deaf when their ears are above water in the air.

The other type of whales, toothed whales, do not have the same wax build-up. Some scientists believe that dolphins can hear in the air, which means that the ear channel is filled with air above the water’s surface. The ear channel would then fill up with seawater below the surface to allow them to hear underwater.

Some scientists believe that hearing does not work the same way as our ears and doesn’t occur through the ear canal. Some species of dolphins are considered to have closed ear channels. With these species, they believe that sounds are transmitted through bone conduction or tissue conduction.

Bone conduction works by the bones of the skull or teeth, transmitting sounds to the inner ear. Tissue conduction allows sound to filter through fat deposits from the lower jaw to the inner ear.

In some toothed whales, a thin bone is found in the fatty deposits, which scientists believe may help conduct sound to the inner ear.

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Taste And Smell

Taste and smell are less different underwater than it is on land. Smell determines the source of chemical substances in the air, whereas taste occurs when chemical substances are dissolved in water and taken into the mouth.

Whereas tasting can still occur underwater as it needs the chemical substances to be dissolved in water, the smell takes place in the air. However, marine mammals can still smell underwater.

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Whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals can smell both predators and prey, which is done at a distance. Taste gives the marine mammals information once the object is close to or in the mouth.

Many marine mammals use chemoreception (chemical sensing) to find food, as water is a suitable carrier for dissolved materials.

Whales can smell underwater and in the air but are not particularly efficient. Whales have their nostrils (blowholes) on top of their head, and it is thought that through evolution, there must have been many changes to how their noses work.

With their nostrils positioned to allow them to survive, the number of olfactory receptors decreased. Toothed whales have fewer olfactory receptors than baleen whales.

The blowholes are closed underwater and only open when they breathe in air. Baleen whales use their limited smell to find water with plenty of plankton.

Toothed whales have taste buds, and dolphins can distinguish between bitter, sweet, sour, and salty food.

The sense of taste allows the cetaceans to feed on healthy fish and avoid decomposing or dead fish. Wild dolphins will not eat dead fish if you try to provide it.

Cetaceans will use their waste to tell others they are ready to mate or follow the herd when migrating.

It is believed that the range of a cetacean’s taste and smell is much more limited than that of a shark.

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Baleen whales evolved in several ways to stop sharks from attacking them. First, they grew to huge sizes and adapted to eating a krill diet, taking them away from the same feeding grounds as sharks.

Dolphins and toothed whales did not adapt in the same ways. To survive against their natural predators, toothed whales had to develop another sense to stop being preyed upon by sharks.

Most toothed whales have developed echolocation. This acts as an echo sounder on a ship and provides information to the animal on the coastline and seafloor’s water depth and profiles.

Echolocation is a way of emitting clicks that the whale interprets when it returns. This provides information on what the sounds bounced back from.

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Clicks are sent out from the animal, and the interval between the sounds and the strength of the clicks sent back provides them with information.

The interval between clicks sent back provides information on the range of the object, with clicks thought to travel up to 800 meters underwater.

The first click determines the range of the object, and subsequent clicks can show the toothed whale the target’s bearing.

Further clicks are sent out to determine the type of object. When they get closer, higher frequencies are sent to give them a more detailed ‘map’ of what the clicks are rebounding from.

Sound waves carry more information to the whale than vision, as vision relies on light sources.

Toothed whales and dolphins have fat deposits in their heads and lower jaws. These deposits have a different chemical composition from other fat in their bodies.

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Dolphins have large melons on top of their heads. The melon contains the largest fat deposit, which they use for echolocation. They also have another special fat deposit on their lower jaw.

The fat deposits allow the dolphin to echolocate. They make a sound from their nasal region, which is then transferred through the melon’s fat, which focuses the nasal sound into a beam.

The sound beam is sent into the water, and they wait for the echoes to be received.

As you can see, most marine mammals have the same senses. However, some use echolocation to explore their environment, and these adaptations make whales unique among mammals.

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