As if the marine ecosystem wasn’t threatened enough by oil spills and excessive noise, the thinning of the ozone layer may be scarring the world’s whales from severe sunburn, experts said Wednesday.
A study of whales in the Mexican coast over the past few years, shows that the biggest mammals have blisters and other typical damage of exposure to the ultraviolet radiation. Simply put, whales are getting sunburned.
Whales seem to be particularly susceptible to sunburns, partly because they must spend extended periods of time on the surface of the ocean in order to breathe, socialize, and feed their calfs. Lacking fur or feathers, whales sunbathe naked.
Laura Martinez-Levasseur, the lead author of the study puts it: “Humans can put on clothes or sunglasses — whales can’t.”
Photographs were taken of the whales to examine any visible damages, and small skin samples were collected to analyze the state of their skin cells.
Her study confirmed suspicions first raised by one of her colleagues: The cetaceans are showing lesions associated with sun damage, and many of their skin samples revealed patterns of dead cells associated with exposure to UV radiation.
As with humans, the lighter-skinned whales seemed to have the most trouble dealing with the sun. Blue whales had more severe skin damage than darker-skinned mammals—like fin whales and sperm whales—even though the latter spend bigger chunks of time at the surface.
Fortunately, the study found no indications of skin cancer among the whales studied, although Martinez-Levasseur, who is also a Ph.D. student at Queen Mary, University of London, noted that only tiny samples were taken of the massive animals.