They’re Born This Way – Adaptations for an Aquatic Environment

Beluga whales often swim in shallow waters at depths that barely cover their bodies. In general they are not thought of as deep diving marine mammals, but they are capable of making deep dives and staying under water for as long as 15 minutes. Why are they able to do that?

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Like other marine mammals, beluga whales possess a number of physiological adaptations that we humans do not have that allow them to dive to deep depths and stay under water for longer periods of time than we can.

During dives beluga whales have a slower heart rate. Also, while diving, blood is shunted away from tissues in their bodies that can tolerate low levels of oxygen towards the heart, lungs and brain where more oxygen is needed. Beluga whales possess more oxygen in their blood than most other animals. And, last, but not least, the muscle of belugas has a high content of an oxygen-binding protein called myoglobin. This protein stores oxygen and prevents muscle oxygen deficiency.

All of these adaptations enable the beluga whale to conserve oxygen while under water and do something we humans can only do through artificial means.

Same family but distinctly their own

Noting the difference between sea lions and seals

Sea lions are often mistaken for seals. The experts here at Marineland can help you identify the difference. Any of our trainers would explain that even though both mammals belong to the family of pinnipeds, meaning “fin footed”, there are points of distinction between the two. These differences include their fins, flippers, ears and voices.

Seals have small front flippers and large, trailing hind flippers, making them agile in the water where they spend most of their time. These flippers are useless for movement on land; seals inch along similar to the way a caterpillar would move.

On the other fin, sea lions have large front flippers and small hind flippers that bend forward. The sea lions flippers allow them to “walk” on land on all fours; this ease of movement means they spend more time on land than seals.

Another visible difference – their ears.  Seals have pinhole openings located on the sides of their heads.  Sea lions have small, external ear flaps that stick out on either side.

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California Sea Lion

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Harbour Seal

Sea lions are very vocal – in fact, they can be downright noisy.  Seals are much quieter emitting soft, low grunts as opposed to the sea lion’s loud bark.

With this knowledge, the next time you are seated at the King Waldorf Stadium and your friend, a first-timer to Marineland, says, “Aren’t those seals adorable?” You’ll respond, “Those are sea lions. We’ll visit the Aquarium Dome where we can see the cutest seals!”

Accentuate the Positive…

 A look at Positive Reinforcement Reward System

 

After presentations, Marineland trainers love answering guest’s questions. The most common is, “how do you train your marine mammals?”

The trainers use a healthy and successful training technique called Positive Reinforcement Reward System.  This system respects the animal by using positive reinforcement, it never allows for punishment.

How does the positive reinforcement reward system work?

Every time an animal performs a behavior correctly the trainer blows a whistle signaling a perfect performance and the animal is rewarded. The animal is never punished for performing a behavior incorrectly; the trainer simply repeats the cue to encourage the animal to try again.

What rewards are used for positive reinforcement?

The reinforcement can be food, a tongue tickle, a back scratch, a belly rub or playtime where large rings and balls are placed in the pool.  While food is a reinforcement used, it is important to note that the animals receive all the food that they require to meet their dietary needs whether they perform the requested behavior or not.

 

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A walrus getting a well-deserved back scratch

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A beluga enjoying playtime with a ball

What types of behaviours do the animals learn?

The trainers teach the animals a variety of behaviours like waving hello or crunching out a few sit-ups. But, there is another important set of behaviours the animals perform called “husbandry” behaviours. These actions help our veterinarians and marine mammal staff to monitor and maintain the health of the animals.

How long does training take?

Basic behaviours require a few months of training, elaborate behaviours require about two years of training. The process helps keep the animals mentally sharp and physically fit. Some learn faster than others and each animal has a unique style.

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A beluga and trainer working together

DID YOU KNOW?… AMAZING WALRUS FACT

Male walruses and some female walruses have special air sacs in their necks that hold air (up to 50 litres) allowing them to keep their heads above water for extended periods of time – they can even sleep this way. Amazing!

The males also use the air sacs to produce a characteristic bell-like sound when courting female walruses.

The first picture shows Zeus without inflated air sacs and the second picture shows Zeus with inflated air sacs.

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