Whales are classed as marine mammals, and in this article, we look to find out whether they possess all the mammalian traits.
Whales breathe air, give birth to live young, provide milk, have a small amount of fur, and are warm-blooded.
Many people have asked me about whales being mammals, so I look at how whales are classed as marine mammals in this article.
When thinking about marine life, we think about fish, including sharks and rays; we may even think about corals, which are, in fact, animals and not plants. The largest animal that has ever lived falls into the category of mammals.
With an intriguing and complex history that spans millions of years, whales, both baleen and toothed, hold some unique evolutionary advancements in the scientific world.
Whales share the same mammalian traits as their closest relative, the hippopotamus. Whales have repositioned their nostrils for air-breathing efficiency and have an extended gestation period and parental care.
Whales do lactate, although it is the consistency of toothpaste than the milk that you would find in the fridge.
The whale is a descendant of a hoofed mammal from 50 million years ago. The whale has made extraordinary advancements in its journey back to the water, but some land-based traits have been preserved, making them unique among marine mammals.
Are All Cetaceans Mammals?
Cetaceans refer to an order of marine mammals that incorporates 90 species, including 49 species of dolphins (river and oceanic) and porpoises.
The other 41 species are divided into baleen whales, 14 species, and 27 species of toothed whales.
These carry the significant mammalian traits of being warm-blooded, having fur, lactating, and breathing air.
Cetaceans belong to the eutherians group as they do not lay eggs or possess pouches and give birth to live young after an extended gestational period. They then continue parental care with lactation, like land mammals, until their young are independent (Campbell Biology, 2015).
What is a Mammal?
A mammal is a warm-blooded animal with fur (however sparse) and feeds its young milk. They also have lungs and, therefore, must breathe air. When thinking of a mammal, the prominent examples are humans, possibly dogs, and cats.
However, marine animals such as dolphins, whales, dugongs, and manatees are also classed as mammals as they possess all of these traits.
The order of Mammalia includes animals that possess mammary glands. The order incorporates monotremes (egg-laying mammals) such as echidnas, Marsupials (mammals with pouches) such as kangaroos, and possums. The third includes Eutherians, which are also known as placental mammals. Eutherians have a long gestation period, as evidenced by humans carrying their young for nine months.
Next, we look at how whales show these typical mammalian traits.
Do Whales Have Fur?
One of the more subtle features of mammals, with marine mammals being no exception, is that they have fur at some point in their life cycle.
This does not necessarily mean that the animals are visibly hairy or even that the adults of mammalian species have visible hair. Most dolphins are born with hairs around their muzzles, which are then lost soon after birth, except the amazon dolphin, which uses these whiskers as sensory organs.
The bumps visible on the backs of humpback whales are hair follicles that can be either active or inactive, depending on the individual.
Hair can be seen on most newborn whales and other marine mammals, but the majority of them shed their hair within the first few weeks of life after birth.
Hair is not necessary for whales like it is for many other mammals such as dogs or cats. Most mammals use their fur to keep warm, but whales use a fat layer of blubber.
Whales having fur is a sign of their evolutionary lineage from furry land-dwelling mammals.
Are Whales Warm-blooded?
Cold-blooded fish, including sharks, are ectothermic, meaning they use their outside temperature to regulate their body temperature. As part of the mammalian group, whales are warm-blooded or endothermic homeotherms. This means that whales must maintain their body temperature using the energy they convert from food.
As whales are so large, there has been some discussion about how whales can take in enough food to produce the required energy for their huge bodies’ movement and keep them warm. One development is that of baleen, the keratin plates in the larger whales’ mouths.
These baleen plates allow whales to hunt for their smaller prey much more efficiently by taking in large amounts of water and filtering the small organisms out by pushing the water from their mouth through the baleen.
In contrast, smaller-toothed whales tend to eat larger octopus and, in many cases, seals, which also have a high-fat content due to their thick layer of fat.
The layer of fat on seals is also present on whales to assist with insulation and as a food store if they cannot find food for an extended period. This food store also aids migration as whales will build up their fat store for traveling between feeding and mating grounds.
Whales can endure water temperatures as low as -2 Celsius or 28.4 degrees Fahrenheit and air temperatures of -40 degrees Celsius or Fahrenheit (the same at this temperature.) Due to movement and salinity levels, seawater does not freeze at these frigid temperatures.
Whales maintain their internal body temperatures by both physiological and behavioral methods. Behaviorally, whales will migrate if they are too cold and often migrate for mating and calving in warmer waters.
Physiologically, whales are big and preserve heat through a large surface area to volume ratio. This means that there is a low amount of skin compared to their weight to lose heat.
Hair is less effective in heat preservation in the water, so it has been replaced by fat in marine mammals.
As land mammals do, whales give live birth to calves after an extended gestation period, which lasts between 10 and 17 months, depending on the species.
During this time, as placental mammals, the calf is connected to the mother by an umbilical cord, just like humans. They share blood, which provides the calf with nutrients and removes waste products using the mother’s internal organs.
Calves are born underwater, and whales have developed an exciting adaptation to deal with that. Where young mammals are usually born headfirst and take their first breath as soon as air touches their faces, marine mammals, including whales, give birth tail first.
This method ensures that the air-breathing calf will not drown if birth takes longer or there are complications. As whale calves are born ready to swim, being born tail first means facing the same direction as the mother.
Once the calf is born, the mother produces milk in a thick paste form with high-fat content, which reduces the risk of the milk dissolving in the water.
The mother will continue nursing anywhere between six months and two years, depending on the species, until the calf feeds independently. Whales’ mouths are not flexible enough to latch on to a nipple, so the mother whale has to eject the milk into the calf’s mouth. The calf can curl its tongue so that the milk is directed into its mouth and not wasted.
Do Whales Breathe Air?
Fish take the oxygen out of the water using their gills, but as mammals, whales must breathe air. Whales have lungs instead of gills; their blowholes are repositioned nostrils.
Baleen whales have two nostrils, whereas toothed whales only have one. Whales cannot breathe through their mouths as the trachea is not attached to it, so the blowholes on top of their heads are their only means of oxygen intake. This separation removes the risk of airway opening when food is swallowed underwater.
Whales have developed an exceptionally efficient respiratory system, where they can utilize 90% of the oxygen they breathe in, in contrast to the 15% humans use.
Whales produce a protein called myoglobin, which allows them to store additional oxygen within their muscles for later use; this is particularly useful for long dives, which for some whales can last hours. All mammals produce myoglobin, but whales can produce much greater amounts than other mammals.
Due to living in an aquatic environment but needing to breathe air, whales are never fully asleep. They can sleep with one half of their brain while the other stays awake and alert in case they need to breathe or are at risk of attack from predators.
Similarities to Land Mammals
Even after millions of years in the sea, whales still have the same bone structures as land mammals. When studying a whale’s bone structure, it is possible to see that their pectoral fins contain the same bones that would be recognized as hands and finger bones in humans or foot and digit bones in a hippopotamus, which is their closest living relative.
A whale’s tail is an altered version of the tail of land mammals, and vestigial rear limbs can still be seen. The connection with the hippopotamus, a semi-aquatic mammal, was discovered through the similar structure of the ankle bones of hippopotamus and whales.
Although sparse, whales have thick bristly hairs on their bodies and have continued to breathe air, with the nostrils migrating to the top of the head and repurposed as a blowhole erupts to heights of 30 feet or 10 meters.
Whales have held onto what seems to be a very effective reproductive system and extended parental care, rare in marine animals.
With the characteristics of breathing air through adapted nostrils, having fur at some point in their lifecycles, and feeding their young milk, an aquatic environment is not the best habitat.
However, over millions of years, today’s whales’ ancestors adapted to their aquatic environment, providing them with an untapped supply of nutrients and the ability to grow to enormous sizes.
Even though they live in a fully aquatic environment, they can utilize the unique properties that allow them to stay members of the mammalian group.
My Favorite Books On Whales
All of these books can be purchased through Amazon.
References And Further Reading
Hickman, C., Roberts, L., Keen, S., Eisenhour, D., Larson, A., I’Anson, H. 2014, Integrated Principles of Zoology, McGraw Hill Education, New York
National Geographic 2020, Blue Whale, National Geographic Partners, retrieved 29/01/20, <https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/b/blue-whale/>
Stone, M. 2019, How Much Is A Whale Worth?, National Geographic Partners, Retrieved 01/02/20, <https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/09/how-much-is-a-whale-worth/>
Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Facts About Whales, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, retrieved 01/02/20, <https://uk.whales.org/whales-dolphins/facts-about-whales/>
Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Do Whales and Dolphins Have Hair?, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, retrieved 01/02/20, < https://us.whales.org/do-whales-and-dolphin-have-hair/>
Whale Facts 2020, Do Whales Have Hair?, Whalefacts.org, retrieved 1/2/20, <https://www.whalefacts.org/do-whales-have-hair/>
Whale Facts 2020, Are Whales Warm-Blooded?, Whalefacts.org, retrieved 1/2/20, <https://www.whalefacts.org/are-whales-warm-blooded/>
Whale Facts 2020, How Do Whales Reproduce?, Whalefacts.org, retrieved 1/2/20, <https://www.whalefacts.org/how-do-whales-reproduce/>
Ballantyne, C. 2009, How Do Marine Mammals Avoid Freezing to Death?, Scientific American, retrieved 01/02/20, < https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/marine-mammals-cold-avoid-freezing-death/>
Echolls, T. 2017, How Do Whales Mate?, Sciencing, retrieved 1/2/20, <https://sciencing.com/whales-protect-themselves-4566498.html>
Garrod, B. 2020, How Do Whales Breastfeed Underwater?, Discover Wildlife, retrieved 01/02/20, < https://www.discoverwildlife.com/animal-facts/marine-animals/how-do-whales-breastfeed-underwater/>
USCB Scienceline 2015, How Come Whales Can Hold Their Breath Longer Than Most Mammals?, National Science Foundation & USCB School-University Partnership, retrieved 1/2/20, < http://scienceline.ucsb.edu/getkey.php?key=1009>
Whale Facts 2020, How Do Whales Breathe?, Whalefacts.org, retrieved 1/2/20, < https://www.whalefacts.org/how-do-whales-breathe/>