As by the title. Why aren't there many more, and larger, whale shark like creatures instead of the great mammalian swimmers? I'd assume fish have a benefit in doing the whole "being under water" thing on virtue of not having to get to the surface to breathe ever so often. Seems it's not that big of a benefit, but I still assume there must be something else about mammals that makes them good at being large swimmers and divers?

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    $\begingroup$ Is the question "why are marine mammals larger (on average) than marine fishes?" $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Oct 11, 2015 at 16:40
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    $\begingroup$ Air breathing is a much more efficient method of obtaining oxygen than filtration through gils. The greater the depth, the less dissolved oxygen there is in the water, so larger, gilled creatures will not get enough oxygen to maintain metabolism. Large marine mammals that can take in massive quantities of air at the surface and hold their breath for extended periods of time while diving to great depths have the advantage here. $\endgroup$
    – AMR
    Oct 11, 2015 at 20:40
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    $\begingroup$ @AMR that seems to answer my question, why not make an answer out of it? $\endgroup$
    – user 49102
    Oct 12, 2015 at 8:13

1 Answer 1


The "niche" of whales comprises much more than just being big. I would actually argue that this is just a byproduct of the marine lifestyle, since endotherms need to maintain their body temperature which is easier when you're big (lower surface/volume ratio). Some reasons for whales being very successful are:

1) Higher oxygen use efficiency: AMR already mentioned the advantages of the mammal metabolism in the terms of oxygen intake. This allows whales to forage in great depths. Note that no fish could withstand such rapid pressure changes, since they need to dynamically adapt their swim bladder.

2) Intelligence: Mammals are much more intelligent and therefore have access to resources that are not available for most other marine animals. E.g. hunting in groups requires a fair amount of intelligence and is much more efficient than hunting alone.

3) Acces to cold environments: In contrast to fish, mammals can maintain high activity regardless of the ambient temperature. This gives them almost exclusive access to highly productive ecosystems like the antarctic and southern oceans.

4) Echolocation: Toothed whales including dolphins use echolocation to communicate and sense objects. This is a very powerful ability for locating and tracking prey.


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