Always intelligent, new research has revealed an even more human-like trait in whales: they tan their skins to fend off the damaging effects of UV rays, just like humans.
The research began when scientists in the Gulf of Mexico began noticing sun-burnt whales, leading them to research the effects of increased UV rays (radiation) on marine wildlife, an important consideration as world ozone layers continue to be degraded.
Using mitochondrial DNA samples, the researchers — who published their study in Scientific Reports this week — studied blue, fin, and sperm whales to figure out what kind of genetic damage ultraviolet rays caused to their skins.
They found that whales with more melanin in their skin were better protected from both skin lesions and DNA damage, wrote the Canadian Press — just as darker-skinned humans are less prone to sun damage than their lighter-skinned compatriots.
Due to their wandering ways and enormous size, the researchers dubbed whales “UV-barometers of the ocean" in their paper, able to "reflect UV variation across large spatial and temporal scales."
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Further, different whale species tanned in different ways. "When blue whales go on their holidays to the Gulf of California they get a tan the same way we do," Professor Mark Birch-Machin said to BBC News of the findings. "And that tan protects blue whales from sunburnt DNA."
Meanwhile, sperm whales roast themselves to activate a protective stress response in their skin, while fin whales had the most melanin in their hides, giving them extra protection from sun lesions.
It remains unknown if sun damage makes whales more vulnerable to melanoma, a known danger in humans. However, the findings could provide interesting new insights into how our own skin behaves.
"The sunburnt DNA we find in whales is the same sunburnt DNA we find in humans and that is definitely linked to ageing," said Professor Birch-Machin to the BBC.
"The study shows the interaction of systems that we can then examine further in human research, and that's got implications for anti-ageing and skin cancer approaches," he added.
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