How do blue whales protect against sun damage? They get a base tan, of course! These ocean giants often spend upwards of six hours at the surface of the sea under the sun so they need the protection.
Scientists made this discovery while working on a study in the Gulf of California. Crossbows were used to retrieve small skin samples from blue, fin, and sperm whales.
Blue whales, the lightest skinned whale species in the study, tan in the summer on the West Coast of the United States before spending winters around Central America. Interestingly, hammerhead sharks have also been shown to increase skin pigmentation in response to UV exposure.
Sperm whales have a different UV damage control method. Within their cells are special proteins that protect their DNA from the sun’s harmful rays.
The darkest colored whales in the study, the fin whales, are protected by high melanin levels. This seems to be the most effective method against UV rays, as fin whales were found to have the lowest number of “sunburn lesions” in the study.
This study is the first of its kind and very relevant due to the decline in Earth’s protective ozone layer. There has been no prior research on UV damage in whales and this study has opened the door to further investigation into whale skin diseases.