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Morphological and thermal properties of mammalian insulation: the evolutionary transition to blubber in pinnipeds


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Carnivora includes three independent evolutionary transitions to the marine environment: pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walruses), sea otters, and polar bears. Among these, only the pinnipeds have retained two forms of insulation, an external fur layer and an internal blubber layer for keeping warm in water. In this study we investigated key factors associated with the transition to the use of blubber, by comparing blubber characteristics among the pinnipeds. Characteristics included gross morphology (blubber thickness), fat composition (fatty acid profiles, percentage lipid, and water), and thermal conductivity. Sea lions, phocids, and walrus, which have lower fur densities than fur seals, have thicker blubber layers than fur seals (P < 0.001). Comparisons of lipid content, water content, and fatty acid composition indicated significant differences in the composition of the inner and outer regions of the blubber between groups (P < 0.001), consistent with the hypothesis that phocids and sea lions utilize the outer layer of their blubber primarily for thermal insulation, and the inner layer for energy storage. Fur seals, by contrast, rely more on their fur for thermal insulation, and utilize their blubber layer primarily for energy storage. Comparing across carnivore species, differences in total insulation (fur and/or blubber) are influenced substantially by body size and habitat, and to a lesser extent by latitudinal climate. Overall, these results indicate consistent evolutionary trends in the transition to blubber and evidence for convergent evolution of thermal traits across lineages. © 2012 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, ••, ••–••.