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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.

Transcript

BOB HIRSHON (host):

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.

HIRSHON:
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.