Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Whales get a tan, too: Pigment in whale skin increases in response to sunshine

Date:
August 30, 2013
Source:
Newcastle University
Summary:
Scientists have revealed the pigment in whale skin increases in response to sunshine, just as we tan. Some species get darker with sun exposure, incurring DNA damage in their skin just like us and they also accumulate damage to the skin as they get older. This provides a better understanding of their protective mechanisms and may offer new avenues to explore for treating human skin cancers.

Whales have been shown to increase the pigment in their skin in response to sunshine, just as we get a tan.
Credit: © cwcheungcw / Fotolia

Whales have been shown to increase the pigment in their skin in response to sunshine, just as we get a tan.

Research published today in Nature journal, Scientific Reports, reveals that not only do some species of whales get darker with sun exposure, incurring DNA damage in their skin just like us, they also accumulate damage to the cells in the skin as they get older.

Experts in the response of skin to UV radiation at Newcastle University were called in after marine biologists in Mexico noticed an increasing number of whales in the area had blistered skin. Analysing samples from three types of whales -- blue, sperm and fin -- they worked together to study the changes in the whale skin after their annual migration to sunnier climes.

Mark Birch-Machin, Professor of Molecular Dermatology at Newcastle University and joint senior author of the paper said: "Whales can be thought of as the UV barometers of the sea. It's important that we study them as they are some of the longest living sea creatures and are sensitive to changes in their environment so they reflect the health of the ocean."

Migrating whales 'tan'

Over three years, the team of marine biologists from Trent University, Canada and Universities in La Paz and Querétaro, Mexico, took skin samples from the backs of three species of whales during their annual migration. Occurring between February and April the whales move to the sunnier Gulf of California, along the northwest coast of Mexico.

Blue whales, the jumbo-jet sized giants, have a very pale pigmentation. During migration time the team found a seasonal change with the pigment in their skin increasing as well as mitochondrial DNA damage. This internal damage to the mitochondria, the engines of the cells, is caused by UV exposure and is what we find in sunburned human skin.

Sperm whales with their distinctive rounded foreheads have a darker pigmentation, also migrate between February and April to the Gulf of California, but have a different lifestyle. They spend long periods at the surface between feeds and are therefore, exposed to more sun and UV.

The scientists found the sperm whales had a different mechanism for protecting themselves from the sun, triggering a stress response in their genes. Newcastle University researcher Amy Bowman added: "We saw for the first time evidence of genotoxic pathways being activated in the cells of the whales -- this is similar to the damage response caused by free radicals in human skin which is our protective mechanism against sun damage."

In contrast, the darkest whales, the deeply pigmented fin whales, were found to be resistant to sun damage showing the lowest prevalence of sunburn lesions in their skin.

Blistered skin

Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse, currently Senior Lecturer at the Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro, Mexico and joint senior author of the paper said: "There has been an increase in the number of reports on blister-type skin lesions in various whale species in areas of high UV radiation. In many cases no infectious microorganism has been found associated with these lesions. It's important that we study the effect of UV radiation on whale skin and the mechanisms that these species use to counteract such damage, both from an evolutionary approach and from a conservation perspective."

To carry out the research the Newcastle University team had to develop an analysis which allowed three whale genomes to be analysed at the same time, a difficult task as whales have very different sequences. This research is the first time that whales have been studied at a genetic level linking to migratory patterns and genetic damage.

"We need to investigate further what is happening," said Professor Birch-Machin, "if we are already seeing blistered skin in the whales caused by UV damage then we want to know whether this could develop into skin cancer and therefore serve as an early warning system.

"These whales occupy the same area year after year, so it is increasingly possible to understand the status of their populations, and what may be going on around them and in the environment. They are a reminder that changing climatic conditions are affecting every creature on the planet."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Newcastle University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Laura M. Martinez-Levasseur, Mark A. Birch-Machin, Amy Bowman, Diane Gendron, Elizabeth Weatherhead, Robert J. Knell, Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse. Whales Use Distinct Strategies to Counteract Solar Ultraviolet Radiation. Scientific Reports, 2013; 3 DOI: 10.1038/srep02386

Cite This Page:

Newcastle University. "Whales get a tan, too: Pigment in whale skin increases in response to sunshine." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 30 August 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130830092442.htm>.
Newcastle University. (2013, August 30). Whales get a tan, too: Pigment in whale skin increases in response to sunshine. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 30, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130830092442.htm
Newcastle University. "Whales get a tan, too: Pigment in whale skin increases in response to sunshine." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130830092442.htm (accessed September 30, 2014).

Share This



More Plants & Animals News

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Earth Has Lost Half Its Vertebrate Wildlife Since 1970: WWF

Earth Has Lost Half Its Vertebrate Wildlife Since 1970: WWF

Newsy (Sep. 30, 2014) — A new study published by the World Wide Fund for Nature found that more than half of the world's wildlife population has declined since 1970. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Dolphins Might Use Earth's Magnetic Field As A GPS

Dolphins Might Use Earth's Magnetic Field As A GPS

Newsy (Sep. 30, 2014) — A study released Monday suggests dolphins might be able to sense the Earth's magnetic field and possibly use it as a means of navigation. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
How To Battle Stink Bug Season

How To Battle Stink Bug Season

Newsy (Sep. 30, 2014) — Homeowners in 33 states grapple with stink bugs moving indoors at this time of year. Here are a few tips to avoid stink bug infestations. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
California University Designs Sustainable Winery

California University Designs Sustainable Winery

Reuters - US Online Video (Sep. 27, 2014) — Amid California's worst drought in decades, scientists at UC Davis design a sustainable winery that includes a water recycling system. Vanessa Johnston reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories

 

Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins