Course Syllabus

Biology of Marine Mammals 

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Semester & Location:

Spring 2023 - DIS Copenhagen

Type & Credits:

Elective Course - 3 credits

Major Disciplines:

Biology & Environmental Science 


One year of biology at university level.

Faculty Members:

Katja Vinding Petersen

Time & Place:

Monday & Thursday, 11:40-13:00

Classroom F24-503

Description of Course

A comparative study of marine mammal anatomy, morphology, physiology, life history and behavior, and adaptation to marine existence. The course includes the study of the effect of human activities on marine mammals with special reference to Northern European waters.

Learning Objectives

Biology of Marine Mammals is an introduction to marine mammals. By the end of this course you will be able to compare the different taxa of marine mammals. You will also identify the main evolutionary, physiological, and morphological differences between the taxa. You will know several species from each taxa and be able to compare these with each other in terms of a number of aspects, such as conservation status, common threats, reproductive and feeding strategies. Some focus will be on the marine mammals and research in Denmark and a number of prominent researchers within their field of expertise will give guest lectures and provide insight on field studies.

During the course you will learn that not everything has been fully investigated yet and that some questions remain unanswered. History also plays a role in marine mammal science, which in the forms of evolution, hunting and technology, can help us better understand these animals. The course will build throughout the semester – you will learn the basics first so you understand the main taxa before discussing them or problems related to specific animals. After completing this course, you will be able to relate your knowledge to a broader picture and discuss problems related to marine mammal populations today.


Katja Vinding Petersen: Ph.D. (Distribution, habitat use, behavior, and sound communication), Zoology Dept., Whale Unit, University of Pretoria, 2016. M.S. (Biology and Didactics), University of Copenhagen, 2007. Research associate at Statens Serum Institute, Denmark (2012-2016). TV presenter at “Physics at sea”, Galathea 3 Expedition (2008). Has worked with marine mammals in the field in, Iceland, Northern Norway, Greenland, and South Africa. Local stranding responsible In the Overstrand Region, South Africa (2010-2012). Founder of the Danish Maine Mammal Society (2003). With DIS since 2019.


The main text book for the class is:

"Marine Mammals, Evolutionary biology", by Annalisa Berta (Author), James L. Sumich (Author), Kit M. Kovacs (Author). Academic Press 2005. Please pick this book during the Arrivals Workshop

This text will be supplemented with chapters from "Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals", Third Edition 3rd Edition by Bernd Würsig (Editor), J.G.M. Thewissen (Editor), Kit M. Kovacs (Editor)

Examples of additional literature:

Castellini, M. Thermoregulation. Pp 1166-1171.. In Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, 2nd. Ed. (W.P. Perrin, B. Würsig and J.G.M. Thewissen, eds.). Elsevier, Amsterdam.

Costa. D. Energetics. PP. 383-390. In Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, 2nd. Ed. (W.P. Perrin, B. Würsig and J.G.M. Thewissen, eds.). Elsevier, Amsterdam.

Williams, T. Swimming. PP. 1140-1147 In Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, 2nd. Ed. (W.P. Perrin, B. Würsig and J.G.M. Thewissen, eds.). Elsevier, Amsterdam.

Kooyman, G. Diving Physiology. PP. 327-332. In Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, 2nd. Ed. (W.P. Perrin, B. Würsig and J.G.M. Thewissen, eds.). Elsevier, Amsterdam.

Dudzinski, K.M et al. Communication. PP. 260-268. In Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, 2nd. Ed. (W.P. Perrin, B. Würsig and J.G.M. Thewissen, eds.). Elsevier, Amsterdam.

Various handouts and papers wil also be used.

Field Studies


29th of April : All Day (Saturday) Field tour to Fjord & Bælt. Important! This is a full day field study from 6:45 AM to 5 PM

15th of February : Necropsy of a Harbour seal

12th of April : Whale safari from Helsingør Aquarium. Boat trip on Øresund to see marine mammals in the wild and learn how to observe in the field. 

Guest Lecturers

Guest lecturers will be prominent scientists working on marine mammals in Denmark or Greenland. 

Professor Rune Dietz, Department of Ecoscience, marine mammal research. Aarhus University. Contaminants.

Professor Andrew Foote. Norwegian University of Science and technology, Trondheim. Killer whales and genetics


Approach to Teaching

The classes will be a combination of traditional lectures, dialogue and discussion, small exercises and often video or film to illustrate wild animal behavior or biology.

Expectations of the Students

In general…

  • Critically read the assigned readings before class with the help of handouts and questions for the given lecture, including on days with tests. In the class room we will not cover all the material in the assigned text, but will focus on key concepts, processes and subjects within the biology of marine mammals
  • Laptop use is not allowed unless specified. Occasionally, I will ask you to search for something, and in these cases internet searches are allowed.
  • The use of mobile phones is not allowed during class.
  • Participate during discussions, group work and common ‘sum ups’ during lectures.
  • Hand in your papers and assignments on time.


 Evaluation is a combination of tests, attendance and performance in assignments

To be eligible for a passing grade in this class you must complete all of the assigned work.

Participation Covers the Following Areas:

  1. Attendance
  2. Completion of reading assignments
  3. Level of preparation and ability to answer questions asked in class
  4. Involvement in class and group discussions
  5. Active participation in field studies
  6. Level of individual research and contribution to discussions
  7. Being on time to all class meetings and handing in papers and assignments on time
  8. Asking questions when you don’t understand or want further explanation of a subject

Participation is evaluated twice during the semester. Based on participation in each classes and field studies, the participation grades from the two periods are used to calculate the final participation at the end of the semester. Good participation equals a grade of A to B+, average participation equals a grade of B to B-, low participation equals a grade C+ or below.





Midterm Test


Final Test




Necropsy Assignment 


Fjord&Bælt Assignment 



Academic Regulations  

Please make sure to read the Academic Regulations on the DIS website. There you will find regulations on: 

 DIS - Study Abroad in Scandinavia -

Course Summary:

Date Details Due