Blubber and flipper heat transfer in harp seals

Acta Physiol Scand. 1997 Nov;161(3):385-95. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-201X.1997.00235.x.


The trunk of marine mammals is encased in a blubber layer which provides thermal insulation that can be changed by circulatory adjustments. The extremities, on the other hand, are poorly insulated but have vascular arrangements constructed for prevention or promotion of heat loss depending on the thermal state of the animal. We have studied the importance of different body parts as sites for heat dissipation and also assessed the effect of circulatory adjustments on heat transfer through blubber, by combining direct measurements of heat flux from the flippers and trunk with simultaneous recordings of temperature gradients through the blubber and metabolic rates of harp seals (Phoca groenlandica) subjected to water temperatures between 1 and 24 degrees C. We also determined the thermal conductivity of blubber samples from the same animals after death, and compared this with the insulative properties of live blubber. At the lowest water temperatures, the insulative properties of live blubber were similar to those of dead blubber, and heat loss from the flippers only accounted for 2-6% of the metabolic heat production. As heat load increased with increasing water temperatures, the fraction of heat lost from the flippers increased, to 19-48% at 24 degrees C, while the fraction lost from the trunk decreased, despite an increase in the convective (circulatory) heat transfer through the blubber layer.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Basal Metabolism
  • Body Surface Area
  • Body Temperature
  • Body Temperature Regulation / physiology*
  • Calibration
  • Extremities / physiology*
  • Female
  • Male
  • Seals, Earless / physiology*
  • Transducers