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"Weekly Topic & News" is posted here every Monday by 7 a.m. CST

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"The Weekly Topic and News" merges the expedition, educational goals, and the needs of teachers. It is the most important component of your online classroom expedition.

Start each week with an in-depth look at this page.

The topic of the week is emphasized with clearly presented, facts and information supplementing each unit of the curriculum package.

Information is also provided to help make real world connections, investigate personal values and discuss current issues.

Completing the circle, the weekly topic will also be highlighted from the Arctic Blast explorers.

Using the sights, sounds, and wilderness perspectives of the arctic facilitate meaningful and energized classes.

The Weekly Topic and News integrates the nationally accredited, K through 12, Nunavut curriculum package and the weekly reports from the expedition. This is where the adventure of collaborative learning really begins.

Blubber and Sea Mammals

At some point (about 50 million years ago) in the history of life on Earth some land mammals became uniquely adapted to live and survive in an ocean environment. Whales, seals, walruses , and other sea mammals had to develop several new characteristics. Being mammals, of course, they still needed to keep a constant body temperature no matter what the conditions. Perhaps one of the most significant adaptations of sea mammal is blubber. Blubber is a thick layer of fat that insulates a whale’s body in cold arctic waters. Blubber also helps sea mammals float (it is less dense than water and provides buoyancy) and a source of energy when food is scarce.

Here is an activity to help you discover how blubber helps insulate a sea mammal’s body. First you’ll need: 2 pairs of rubber gloves, 1 bucket (filled with ice water), laboratory thermometer, vegetable shortening, and stop watch or watch with a second hand. Once you have all the materials, hold the thermometer in the bucket of ice water for one minute. Record the temperature. This will allow you to compare the temperature of your water with the Arctic Ocean. Next, put a rubber glove on each of your hands. On the right hand, spread a generous amount of shortening over the glove. You may need someone to assist in putting the second pair of gloves on over the first. Put both of your hands into the bucket of ice water. Remove each hand when the temperature becomes uncomfortable. Record the length of time each hand was able to stay in the ice water.

Undoubtedly, you will come to realize that the hand covered in shortening will stay warmer longer. Blubber is vital to the survival of most sea mammals (sea otters do not have any blubber and therefore must rely on their thick fur coat to keep them warm). For example, during summer months, California gray whales consume so much food that their blubber layer grows to a thickness of 612 inches. This thick layer of fat is used as an energy reserve and allows the grays to migrate 20 to 100 miles a day down the coast of North America to their breeding grounds in the warm lagoons of Mexico. Having blubber and possessing it in a sufficient amount is an important part of a sea mammals life.

Besides possessing blubber, arctic sea mammals also posses many other unique adaptations. For example, the narwhales, also known as the unicorn of the sea, have (at least all the males do) a long tusk pointing out of the front of their heads, kind of like the horn on the head of a unicorn. The tusk is actually just a big tooth. Narwhals only have two teeth and the male's left front tooth grows through the upper lip until it reaches lengths of up to ten feet long! Scientists have no idea why narwhals have tusks growing out of their lips. Some think it may help them hunt for food by digging into the ocean bottom to stir up food. Others have noticed the Narwhal using the tusk to break through thin layers of ice so it can come up to get a breath of air. Just as male birds have pretty colored feathers to attract the females, some scientists think the narwhal's tusk is used to attract a mate. Narwhals look just like beluga whales. Both are plump with round heads shaped like melons. And they both always seem to be smiling. Belugas are pure white and narwhals are spotted like a leopard. Narwhals live in chilly arctic waters and love to eat fish and squid, and of course, since they only have two teeth, they need to swallow their food whole.

Walruses have a very thick teeth and blubber as well. Walruses have two huge tusks come out of their mouths like giant teeth which they use for scraping the sandy ocean floor in search of clams and to help in climbing out of the water. Unlike the narwhal, walruses spend two thirds of their time in the water and one third of their time on land. Walruses like to spend time on floating islands of ice (called ice floes) to rest and to have their babies. Just like whales, a mother walrus is called a cow and her baby is called a calf; however, walruses are not cousins of the whale because whales never leave the water. When a herd of walruses come out of the water and hoist themselves up onto an ice floe, it's called "hauling out." Imagine a 3,500-pound walrus pulling itself out of the water and onto land and you can understand why it's called "hauling out." To keep them insulated a walrus has about six inches of blubber. Each walrus also has 400 to 700 whiskers on its face to help it find food. The whiskers are attached to muscles, so all a walrus has to do is put his face in the sandy bottom and wiggle it around to find food. Walruses can also spit a powerful jet of water into the sandy floor to help find clams. They eat clams, snails, squid, crabs, and worms. Seals, sea lions, and walruses all belong to a group called pinnipeds.

The beluga whale is probably the animal most commonly associated with the arctic sea. The word Beluga is Russian for "whitefish.” In fact, the Beluga is also known as the white whale. The adult color is cream white. It has smooth skin with grayish edged flukes. It has a cigar shape covering it's head and tail, a large forehead in the shape of a "melon" with a flat snout. The jaws of a Beluga whale give the whale a beautiful smile. They are considered small whales that weigh only around two tons - males being larger then females. Beluga whales live in the Arctic and sub-Arctic oceans and have been a staple for the Inuit over the centuries. Large pods of Beluga whales live in the Northern Arctic Seas. Smaller pods live near coasts and river mouths.

Arctic sea mammals have faced and survived many dangers over their countless generations. However, today ironically enough the bone chilling cold that is home to the polar bear, seals, walrus, and whales could be changing dramatically. Norwegian scientists say that the polar ice cap could disappear entirely each summer beginning in just 50 years, radically altering the Earth's environment, the global economy and the human imagination. “The changes we've seen have been much faster and more dramatic than most people imagine," said Tore Furevik, 31, a polar researcher and co-author of the article "Toward an Ice-Free Arctic?" in a recent issue of a Norwegian science journal. Of course, not everyone agrees with Furevik, but most do state that the greenhouse effect exists they just aren’t sure as to the degree in which warming will take place. Polar bears, seals, walruses and the Inuit who rely on them for food face bleak prospects if this “new” danger remains. Furevik, the Norwegian researcher, said he could foresee ice-dwelling mammals making "a desperate last stand" north of Greenland, where he believes the final patch of Arctic sea ice will linger before vanishing into the waves in about 2050.

For more information about sea mammals check out these websites.
Arctic Studies Center
Arctic Wildlife
Arctic Wildlife
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