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Marine Mammals

A humpback whale shows its tail, or fluke, off shore from the Unites States Antarctic Program’s Palmer Station (Photo by Tyler Rohr, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

What are marine mammals?

Marine mammals are warm-blooded vertebrates (animals with a backbone) that bear live young and nourish them with milk as land mammals do, but that spend most or all of their lives in the ocean. They are broken into three groups that share similar adaptations to their aquatic life, but that have very different origins and life patterns.

Sirenians, the manatees and dugongs, are slow plant feeders found in warm, shallow coastal habitats. Pinnipeds, the seals, sea lions and walruses, bear young on land, but spend most of their time in the ocean. Cetaceans, the dolphins, porpoises and whales that spend all of their lives in the ocean, include both toothed species that are carnivorous predators, and filter-feeding baleen whales that consume huge quantities of tiny plankton. In size, marine mammals range from small seals and porpoises to the largest animal that has ever lived, the blue whale. Many cetaceans and pinnipeds dive to remarkable depths to feed, feats only recently discovered using digital tags that record the animals' movements, direction, and depth over time.

Marine mammals play important ecological roles as both predator (many hunt for fish) and as prey, both for sharks and other, larger marine mammals. Humans have also long hunted marine mammals for food and fur. Although hunting pressures have declined, marine mammals still suffer from low numbers and inadvertent human activities such as certain fishing methods, boating and shipping traffic, and increasing ocean noise.

WHOI scientists have conducted marine mammal research for decades, from making the first underwater recordings of marine mammal sounds in the 1940s, to the development of digital tracking tags and CT scanning methods. The WHOI Marine Mammal Center (MMC), fosters research on whales, dolphins, and seals, including their behavior, health, anatomy, and perception; methods to free entangled whales and the causes of strandings; and marine mammal populations' link to ocean conditions and plankton abundance. A particular focus is the endangered north Atlantic right whale, an animal that was hunted nearly to extinction and whose population only includes 300 to 400 individuals.

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News & Insights

Recognizing Massachusetts Right Whale Day

April 24 marks the first-ever Right Whale Day in Massachusetts. WHOI biologist and veterinarian Michael Moore recently met with the resident who brought this special recognition about– and explains why it’s important to raise awareness about the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Critically Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales Getting Smaller, New Research Finds

A report out this week in Current Biology reveal that critically endangered North Atlantic right whales are up to three feet shorter than 40 years ago. This startling conclusion reinforces what scientists have suspected: even when entanglements do not lead directly to the death of North Atlantic right whales, they can have lasting effects on the imperiled population that may now number less than 400 animals. Further, females that are entangled while nursing produce smaller calves.

Rare Drone video shows critically endangered North Atlantic right whales

May 10, 2021

 

During a joint research trip on February 28 in Cape Cod Bay, Mass., WHOI whale trauma specialist Michael Moore, National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry, and scientists from New […]

Unicorns of the Arctic face a new potential threat

Narwhals and other marine mammals could be vulnerable to a new threat we’ve become all too familiar with: COVID-19

WHOI working to help save critically endangered North Atlantic right whales

North Atlantic right whales are in crisis. There are approximately 356 individuals remaining, and with over 80% bearing scars of entanglements in fishing line, the race to save this species is more critical than ever.

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News Releases


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WHOI in the News


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From Oceanus Magazine

For right whales, a dwindling food source is causing concern

As an important food source wanes in the Gulf of Maine, right whales are forced to venture further north into a minefield of ships and fishing gear

Are offshore wind farms harming whales?

WHOI whale biologist Mark Baumgartner weighs in

The value of iron for a seal

WHOI researchers travel to remote Sable Island to determine if iron gives gray seal pups a head start in life

Wind Water and Ice

Like fiction, but real. Explore the “superpowers” of three Antarctic icons

Keeping an ear out for whales

Scientists look to safeguard the mammals with robotic buoys in the New York Bight