Whales and other sea mammals have evolved to keep themselves warm in the cold oceans. I wanted to find out if this is the reason that whales and other mammals have blubber. I was quite surprised what else blubber is good for.
Blubber is used by warm-blooded mammals to regulate their temperature in icy waters. Layers of blubber also help them to stay bouyant, give them a level of protection against predators and give them an extra energy source.
Blubber is very important to warm-blooded mammals to survive in such extreme environments. Here I provide some details of why blubber is important for mammals and humans alike.
What is Blubber?
Blubber is a thick and insulating layer of fat that lies beneath the skin of marine mammals. This layer of fat dramatically helps to keep these warm-blooded mammals warm inside the water.
Mammals that have evolved to live in the cold ocean waters have a layer of fat to help them survive in the icy waters.
Most marine mammals such as whales have fat regardless of where they live whether they are in the cold waters around Antarctica, or frigid waters near the North Pole.
During the coldest seasons of the year, the water can reach temperatures below 60 degrees c (76 degrees f). In the winter months, most species of whales dive to depths of more than 500 meters into the ocean where the water is even colder. Blubber is what prevents the ’whale’s bodies from freezing in these temperatures.
Cold-blooded marine animals such as sharks, crabs and fish have a different mechanism to survive. Cold-blooded animals do not need an extra layer of fat to stay warm. These animals blend their body temperatures along with the temperature of the water.
Regarding warm-blooded marine mammals, these animals have blubber. This extra layer of fat is where they store extra digested foods in the form of adipose tissue.
The adipose tissue contains lipids which have a relatively low thermal conductivity. This extra layer does not conduct heat from the body of the whale, therefore not losing it to the surrounding waters. This is the reason why blubber helps to keep whales warm.
Want to know why whales migrate? Find out in this article I have written.
Why do Animals Need Blubber?
Plenty of warm-blooded mammals live in icy environments, and this is the primary reason why they need fat to survive.
This is the case with seals, whales and sea lions. All of these animals have to endure freezing environments. All of these animals find their food in these areas, and it is where they have historically lived.
These marine mammals have a layer of blubber which is essentially a layer of fat tissues. These tissues insulate the body from losing essential heat.
Marine animals usually develop these tissues over their life as a way of keeping them warm. These tissues are not made just through the food that they eat. It is a physical characteristic that mammals have to develop.
There are several reasons why sea mammals need blubber.
Blubber Regulates Blood Flow
Unlike other fat tissue, blubber is vascularized. The blubber has a higher number of blood vessels compared to other typical layers of fat in the body.
The layers of fat have more blood vessels for the sole purpose of temperature regulation. It is much easier to lose heat while in water than on land.
Without blubber, sea mammals would have a difficult time regulating their body temperatures. Water temperatures are always fluctuating, and never one temperature for long. The marine mammals use blubber to keep their body temperatures in check in comparison to the sea around them.
When the whale gets deeper into the water or migrates to colder regions, the temperature of the water drops considerably.
The blubber constricts the blood vessels. This restriction of the blood vessels reduces the flow of blood to the skin. This is a mechanism that enables sea mammals like whales to spend less energy producing body heat. The restriction of the blood vessels keeps the body warm, while at the same time reducing the use of energy.
Thick Insulation Against the Cold
Among many characteristics that sea mammals have developed over time, blubber is very effective at keeping them warm.
The fat is thick and dense and accounts for a substantial portion of a whale’s body. For this reason, sea mammals have a body mass that is made up of about 50% blubber.
This substantial amount of fat is especially the case with marine mammals that live in the coldest regions. In areas such as the Arctic, whales have blubber that can develop up to 20 inches thick.
If you want to know why whales migrate, I have written an article, which you can find here.
Do all Whales Have the Same Thickness of Blubber?
The thickness of the blubber depends on the species and the environments they live in.
There are some whale species that have blubber of just 1 inch thick, whereas other species have a layer of blubber that is as thick as 20 inches.
The thickness of blubber plays a more significant role in determining the climate that a marine animal or mammal can live. The species of whales found in the colder regions will generally have thicker blubber than species that are found in warmer climates.
Does Blubber Contain Lipids?
The blubber contains lipids, which are molecules that function to store energy and act as components of cells.
Lipid concentrations in the blubber are important. Lipid concentration plays a crucial role in regulating the temperatures of marine animals.
The higher the lipid concentration in the blubber, the more efficient it is at regulating body heat.
If the blubber has a higher water concentration, then the sea mammal will not regulate body heat efficiently.
How Does Blubber Help Whales?
Besides the benefit of regulating body temperatures of marine mammals, there are several other benefits associated with blubber.
All the benefits help these mammals not only survive but thrive in such cold environments.
Here are some of the primary benefits that blubber offers to whales:
A layer of blubber helps the whales be more buoyant. This is very important given the weight of a whale.
Some species of whale can grow up to 150 tonnes. Blubber with the combination of saltwater in the oceans makes it easier for these mammals.
This combination helps them to rise to the surface of the waters without much difficulty. It also helps them to stay buoyant when resting and inactive.
Blubber also protects whales and other marine mammals against injuries and attacks. The extra layer of fat puts marine mammals in a better position to defend themselves because predators cannot easily penetrate that thick layer.
Blubber also helps to keep the body organs of whales and other marine mammals warm. Some organs, including the heart, brain and lungs, need to be warm to function properly.
Ever wondered how land mammals stay warm? Find out in an article I have written here.
For some whale species, blubber can be very important as an additional energy source. The layer of blubber acts like an emergency food store.
When there is limited food, marine mammals can use nourishment from the fats and proteins stored in the blubber. These extra nutrients can help them to survive when food is scarce.
In some whale species such as the blue whale, the blubber is their primary source of energy. This helps them, especially when they get to colder environments. Due to the blubber, the blue whale is what makes its long migration trips successful.
What Animals Need Blubber?
It is not just whales that have blubber. There are several other animals in the oceans that use the same mechanism to keep warm.
These animals use blubber for the same purpose of keeping the body warm, protection of vital organs, buoyancy and energy production. Blubber is found in most marine mammals including whales, seals, polar bears, sea lions and walruses.
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Why is Blubber Important to Humans?
Whale blubber has been in use by humans for many years now, and it is used in almost all aspects of life.
For Native Americans, whale blubber is a very popular source of food for many people that live in the Arctic. Blubber is rich in a lot of vital nutrients and minerals.
Blubber is rich in Omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin D. These are the two primary nutrients and vitamins that make it so popular.
Blubber should not be consumed in large amounts due to the toxins it contains. The toxins can be a health hazard and cause tissue damage in humans. Blubber should only be consumed in limited amounts.
Whale oil has been used in soap, leather and in cosmetics. Oil from whales was also used as wax for candles, and as fuel in oil lamps.
Is Whale Blubber Still Used?
Whale blubber is still being used, but most countries in the world are trying to discourage whale hunting.
In some places, the government allows managed whale hunting to preserve the cultural heritage of particular groups of people.
This is only done when the whale population is large enough. There are some whale species which were hunted in the past for blubber and to obtain whale oil, which almost led to their extinction.
For this reason, many states are extremely cautious about whaling. Endangered species are protected, and their populations closely monitored.
If you would like to know what the ten largest whales are in North America, I have written an article here.