DescriptionLipid-rich, collagen fiber–laced blubber comprises the hypodermis and covers the whole body, except for parts of the appendages, strongly attached to the musculature and skeleton by highly organized, fan-shaped networks of tendons and ligaments. It can comprise up to 50% of the body mass of some marine mammals during some points in their lives and can range from a couple of inches thick in dolphins and smaller whales, to more than a foot thick in some bigger whales, such as Right and Bowhead Whales. However, this is not indicative of larger whales' ability to retain heat better, as the thickness of a whale's blubber does not significantly affect heat loss. More indicative of a whale's ability to retain heat is the water and lipid concentration in blubber, as water reduces heat retaining capacities, and lipid increases them.
FunctionBlubber serves several different functions. It is the primary location of fat on some mammals, and is essential for storing energy. It is particularly important for species which feed and breed in different parts of the ocean. During these periods the species are operating on a fat-based metabolism. Recent research also shows that blubber may save further energy for marine mammals such as dolphins in that it adds bounce to a dolphin's swim.
Blubber is, however, different from other forms of adipose tissue in its extra thickness, which allows it to serve as an efficient thermal insulator, making blubber essential for thermoregulation. Blubber is also more vascularized, or rich in blood vessels, than other adipose tissue.
Blubber has advantages over fur (as in sea otters) in the respect that although fur can retain heat by holding pockets of air, the air pockets will be expelled under pressure (while diving). Blubber, however, does not compress under pressure. It is effective enough that some whales can dwell in temperatures as low as 40 °F (4 °C). While diving in cold water, blood vessels covering the blubber constrict and decrease blood flow, thus increasing blubber's efficiency as an insulator.
Blubber can also aid in buoyancy, and acts to streamline the body because the highly organized, complex collagenous network supports the non-circular cross sections characteristic of cetaceans.
Research into the thermal conductivity of the common bottlenose dolphin's blubber reveals that its thickness and lipid content vary greatly amongst individuals and across life history categories. However, blubber from emaciated dolphins is a much poorer insulator than that from non-pregnant adults, which in turn have a higher heat conductivity than blubber from pregnant females and pre-adults.
Muktuk (the Inuit/Eskimo word for blubber) formed an important part of the traditional diets of the Inuit and other northernly peoples because of its high energy value. Seal blubber has large amounts of Vitamin E, selenium, and other antioxidants, which may reduce the effect of the free radicals formed within the body's cells. Damage caused to cells by free radicals are a theorized contributor to some diseases. Whale blubber, which tastes like Arrowroot biscuits, has similar properties. The positive effects of consuming blubber can be seen in Greenland; in Uummannaq for example, a hunting district with 3,000 residents, no deaths due to cardiovascular diseases occurred in the 1970s. However, emigrants to Denmark have contracted the same diseases as the rest of the population. The average 70-year-old Inuit with a traditional diet of whale and seal has arteries as elastic as that of a 20-year-old Danish resident.One of the major reasons for the whaling trade was the collection of whale blubber. This was rendered down into oil in try pots or later, in vats on factory ships. The oil could be then used in the manufacture of soap, leather, and cosmetics. Whale oil was also used in candles as wax, and in oil lamps as fuel.
Blue Whales can yield blubber harvests of up to 50 tons.