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Ocean Life: Mammals -Adaptation

Photo of two dolphins at the water's surface
The bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops) on
the right camouflages with the water
(Office of Naval Research photo)


To blend into their environment, some marine mammals have countershading (their top side is darker that their underneath surfaces). This coloration, typical of many marine mammals, provides camouflage. The result is that predators or prey do not see a contrast between the animal and the environment because the top blends in with dark depths when viewed from above and the light belly blends in with the sunlit surface when seen from below. To the right is a picture of an hourglass dolphin illustrating the general pattern of dark upper dorsal coloration and light ventral (belly) coloration seen in many marine animals.


Photo of three polar bears in the snow
Polar bears blend in with the snowy white
environment. These bears will cover their
black nose and eyes with their paw to blend
(courtesy of NOAA)

Another example of camouflage is the coloring of the polar bear. The polar bear is white to blend in with its snowy environment. When sneaking up on prey, the polar bear will cover its black nose with its paw to blend in perfectly with its surroundings.

Sensory Systems

Pinnipeds have large eyes for seeing in the low light conditions often found underwater. In cetaceans, the eyes are located on the sides of the head, but focus forward. Both the pinniped's and cetacean's eyes are adapted to see well underwater. As a result, their in-air vision suffers. Manatees have small eyes and fair to poor eyesight. They seem to be farsighted and rely on touch to identify objects close up.

Photo of a seal pup's face
A young bearded seal pup
(courtesy of NOAA)

Pinnipeds have small olfactory (sense of smell) lobes, and evidence shows that smell is important when interacting with other pinnipeds. Toothed whales do not have a sense of smell, but baleen whales do have some olfactory nerves. Cetaceans have taste buds at the base of their tongue, and the common dolphin and the bottlenose dolphin are able to distinguish (tell apart) certain smells. Manatees have a good sense of smell and are often selective in their food choices. Sirenians have many more taste buds than their cetacean cousins, and this may contribute to their choices of food. Polar bears have an acute sense of smell, and it is the most important sense for detecting prey on land. A polar bear can smell a seal more than 20 miles away!


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