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Whales getting sunburned, study finds

This blue whale, photographed in the Gulf of California, has blistered skin scientists say is associated with sun damage. This blue whale, photographed in the Gulf of California, has blistered skin scientists say is associated with sun damage. (Diane Gendron/Zoological Society of London via Associated Press)
Associated Press / November 11, 2010

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LONDON — Scientists say some whale species off the Mexican coast are showing signs of severe sunburn that may be caused by the damaged ozone layer’s decreased ability to block ultraviolet radiation.

The mammals would be particularly vulnerable to sun damage in part because they need to spend extended periods of time on the ocean’s surface to breathe, socialize, and feed their young. Since they do not have fur or feathers, that effectively means they sunbathe naked.

The study’s lead author, Laura Martinez-Levasseur of the Zoological Society of London, spent three years studying whales in the Gulf of California, the body of water that separates Baja California from the Mexican mainland.

Photographs were taken of the whales to chart any visible damage, and small samples — taken with a crossbow-fired dart — were collected to examine the state of their skin cells.

Her study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, seemed to confirm suspicions first raised by one of her whale-watching colleagues: The beasts were showing lesions associated with sun damage, and many of their skin samples revealed patterns of dead cells associated with exposure to the powerful ultraviolet radiation emitted by the sun.

As with humans, the lighter-skinned whales seemed to have the most difficulty.

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