Just like we use pumice stones to scrape dead skin off cracked heels during pedicures, bowhead whales may be using boulders at the bottom of the ocean to exfoliate, new research says. But Arctic species like belugas are thought to molt all at once when they visit warmer waters during the summer.
Data has shown that bowhead whales may be among the longest-lived animals on earth. The video below shows one bowhead whale rubbing on a large rock in Brown Harbor, which was observed with three other bowheads that proceeded to rub on rocks, as well. "I've heard about this in beluga whales and orcas, but never in bowheads", says Paul Anderson, a research scientist at Mystic Aquarium who was not involved in the study.
The footage revealed large boulders underwater that the whales were rubbing against to remove dead skin. Her footage revealed that all 81 whales in the area had signs of sloughing skin, and for 40 percent of them it covered at least two-thirds of their body.
The discoveries help explain some of the odd behaviour of whales witnessed over centuries by the Inuit people, whalers and, more recently, by scientists.
Researchers from the University of British Columbia saw bowhead whales rubbing themselves on rocks in the Cumberland Sound Nunavut
From their boat, the researchers saw the whales turn on their sides and wave their flippers and tails in the air. To track the whales in the frigid Arctic waters separating Baffin Island and Greenland, she placed sticky tags on the whales' backs. To get a closer look at things, they operated drones to get an aerial view of the animals and record what was happening, and that's when they determined that the mammals were rubbing against rocks to exfoliate.
Fortune, a PhD student at UBC's Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, said: "This was an incidental observation". "We were there to document their prey and feeding behaviour, but we noticed some unusual behaviour near the shore", Fortune said. "Very little is known about moulting in any of the large whale species". The elevated water temperature in a rock-rubbing habitat may stimulate epidermal growth, raise skin temperature, and speed up metabolic processes on the skin - all of which supports the hypothesis that warmer water may facilitate moulting and that rock-rubbing aids exfoliation.
The researchers believe that bowhead whales may molt to shed parasites such as whale lice or to shed skin that has been damaged by the sun. The latter could reduce the risk of ultraviolet radiation during the summer at high latitudes, which could be important for long-lived species by limiting age-accumulated skin damage.
Now Fortune hopes to conduct further studies to determine whether bowhead whales molt primarily during summer months, and throughout their range.
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