As if whales don’t have enough troubles already, they’re now suffering the indignity of sunburns on top of everything else.
Blue whales, fin whales and sperm whales studied between 2007 and 2009 were noted to be afflicted by blisters and changes in skin colour associated with sun damage, says a report published today by the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Blue whales fared worst, with their papery, pale skin. Sperm whales that have darker skin did a little better. Like humans, those of us with paler skin are simply more susceptible to the rays of the sun.
I feel the pain of the blue whale. The length of time I can spend in the sunshine even when buttered up by a thick layer of Coppertone has dramatically shortened these last few years. No surprise, researchers speculate this might be attributed to the thinning ozone layer.
Unfortunately whales, who must surface to breathe, socialize and feed their young, do not have access to my bag of skin protection tricks. No hats, no sunscreen and no, “I’ll just wait for you under this tree here where it’s shady.”
Despite this, even though they had acute sun damage, no evidence of increased risk of skin cancers was detected amongst the studied whales. They appear to have a few tricks of their own. They could produce more pigment or they could increase apoptosis – a natural measure of removing damaged cells.
Could whale sunburns spell good news for us? 1 in 74 men and 1 in 90 women is expected to develop melanoma in their lifetime – what if scientists could replicate the whale’s physiological response to sun in human skin? I’ll be patiently hanging out under a tree until then.