A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

This Week in Green – Nov. 12, 2010

By Geoff Grant – Zoe Environmental Editor

What do sunburned whales, deformed beaks, rice, chocolate and beer have in common? They’re all highlights of the environmental news this week. Actually, the rice may be the highlight, with strategies in the offing to help combat both hunger and poverty. Whales suffering from UV exposure and birds suffering from some unidentified exposure are in the low-lights category, and while you could cheer yourself up with beer or chocolate, it might cost you a lot more than usual.

Whales in Mexico suffering from sunburn?

The depletion of the earth’s ozone layer may be causing some whale species to suffer severe sunburn, according to new research.

The study, conducted by scientists from the Zoological Society of London, Queen Mary, University of London and CICIMAR of Mexico, showed that increases in ultraviolet radiation from the ozone layer was likely damaging the skin of some whales in Mexico. That damage mirrored acute sunburn in humans and was progressively getting worse.

“Humans can put on clothes or sunglasses — whales can’t,” said lead author Laura Martinez-Levasseur, from Queen Mary and ZSL.
Because whales surface for long periods to breathe, as well as to socialize and feed, they have become more susceptible to the increased UV rays.

Blue whales, fin whales and sperm whales in the Gulf of California were the primary focus of the study. The scientists used photos to document the blisters and small skin samples to assess skin damage.

“As we would expect to see in humans, the whale species that spent more ‘time in the sun’ suffered greater sun damage,” said co-author Edel O’Toole, from Queen Mary. “We predict that whales will experience more severe sun damage if ultraviolet radiation continues to increase.”

The next threshold for the scientists is to study if the whales’ pigmentation darkens over time — essentially tanning as we know it — and whether they are at risk of skin cancer because of the exposure.