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East End scientists discover whales suffer from sunburn

PUBLISHED: 12:00 10 November 2010

Close up of blisters on skin of a blue whale , picture by Diane Gendron

Close up of blisters on skin of a blue whale , picture by Diane Gendron

Diane Gendron, ZSL

Researchers from an East London university looking at the effects of the rising levels of ultraviolet radiation have discovered that whales suffer from skin damage similar to acute sunburn in humans which seems to be getting worse over time.

Scientists from the Mile End campus of Queen Mary, University of London, joined forces with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), and CICIMAR in Mexico to study blue whales, fin whales and sperm whales in the Gulf of California to find out the effect of rising levels of ultraviolet radiation on their health.

Over the years scientists have spotted blisters on the skin of whales and have now been able to asses the damage by analysing high quality photos and skin samples.

They have discovered that three species of whales are suffering skin damage like the damage humans get with acute sunburn.

Their research is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, and showed that signs of sun damage were more severe in the paler-skinned blue whales, compared with the darker-skinned fin whales, and that in blue whales the symptoms of sunburn seem to be getting worse during the three years the study took place.

Co-author Professor Edel O’Toole, from the Blizard Institute of Cell and Molecular Science in Newark Street, Whitechapel at Queen Mary, said: “As we would expect to see in humans, the whale species that spent more ‘time in the sun’ suffered greater sun damage. We predict that whales will experience more severe sun damage if ultraviolet radiation continues to increase.”

The UV index for the Gulf of California fluctuates between high and extremely high throughout the year. Lead author, Laura Martinez–Levasseur who works jointly at Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences and at ZSL, commented: “Whales need to come to the surface to breathe air, to socialise and to feed their young, meaning that they are frequently exposed to the full force of the sun.

“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 UVR as a result of either ozone depletion, or a change in the level of cloud cover.”

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