Whales suffer from sunburn too

By Aaron Smith 11 November 2010
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Just like us whales get sunburned – and the problem is increasing, according to a new study.

WHALES SUFFER SKIN DAMAGE similar to sunburn in humans – and it appears to be getting worse over time, new research suggests.

A team of scientists from the UK and Mexico, studied blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus), fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus)  and sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) in the Gulf of California to determine the effect of rising levels of ultraviolet (UV) radiation on their health.

High quality photographs allowed them to analyse blistered, damaged skin – and the research now reveals these three species suffer sunburn similar to humans. The paler-skinned blue whales may fare worse than darker-skinned fin whales. The blue whale sunburn symptoms also seemed to worsen over the three-year duration of the study, the scientists report.

Mystery increase

“The increase in skin damage seen in blue whales is a matter of concern, but at this stage it is not clear what is causing this increase. A likely candidate is rising UV radiation as a result of either ozone depletion, or a change in the level of cloud cover,” says lead author, Laura Martinez-Levasseur from ZSL and Queen Mary University of London.

In the Gulf of California, UV levels fluctuate from high to extremely high throughout the year, and as whales frequently surface to breathe, socialise and to feed their young, they are often exposed to the full brunt of the sun.

“As we would expect to see in humans, the whale species that spent more time in the sun suffered greater sun damage,” says co-author Professor Edel O’Toole, also at Queen Mary University of London. “We predict that whales will experience more severe sun damage if ultraviolet radiation continues to increase.”

Sunburn is not just a human ailment; many animals are prone to skin damage from the sun, especially those with little fur or hair covering. Pigs, rhinos and elephants, for example, quite easily suffer sunburn – this is part of the reason they give themselves mud or dust baths.

Consequences of sunburn

The next phase of the research will study the genes involved in repairing the damage to DNA in sunburned skin. “We now need to understand the knock-on effects and whether whales are able to respond quickly to increasing radiation by enhancing their natural sun-protection mechanisms,” says lead author Dr Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse from Zoological Society of London.

Dr Peter Gill, marine biologist from Deakin University, Melbourne, and director of the Blue Whale Study project, says that it is interesting and ties in with observations from Australia, Chile and California. “We have certainly noticed various skin ailments, pitted marks and lesions over several years and have wondered what has caused them. I look forward to looking into this study in more detail,” he says.

The study was published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B journal.