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Whale Tanning

September 12, 2013

Whales tan and suffer sunburn-like skin damage, which could indicate changes in UV radiation over the oceans.



Whale suntans. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

A mother sperm whale with its baby. (Gabriel Barathieu/Flickr)

Whales can get suntans, as well as skin damage from overexposure. This according to molecular dermatologist Mark Birch-Machin of Newcastle University in England. For instance, his team identified tanning in blue whales, which migrate from the Arctic to the much sunnier California coast.

MARK BIRCH-MACHIN (Newcastle University, U.K.)

And they seem to deal with the problem by increasing their tan.

Like humans, they tan by increasing the pigment melanin in their skin. Sperm whales, which spend more time at the surface, not only tan but also have a cellular stress response to ultraviolet light. Another similarity to humans: whales accumulate DNA damage to their skin over time, and may develop lesions as they age. Birch-Machin says that closely monitoring this sort of damage may help scientists track changes in ultraviolet radiation across the entire ocean. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.