WHOI Researchers Study Whale Skin Bacteria

A team gathers skin samples from healthy humpback whales in waters off the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Researchers obtain samples by releasing a biopsy-collecting dart, which bounces off the whale’s skin and into the water. Credit: David W. Johnston, Duke University. The research was authorized by NOAA permit #808-735 and Antarctic Conservation Act permit #2009-14.

WOODS HOLE – The skin of marine mammals serve as a line of defense against pathogens in their environment and a new study shed some light on the microorganisms on healthy humpback whales.

Researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Duke University and the University of California, Santa Cruz, analyzed bacteria on skin samples in early summer from nearly 90 whales off the Western Antarctic Peninsula.

Almost all of the whales had six core communities of bacteria living on their skin.

The core bacteria groups found in the study overlap with the researchers’ previous studies of skin samples from whales in tropical waters and off Cape Cod.

By late summer, after the whales fed and put on weight, four new groups of bacteria emerged on almost all of the marine mammals.

The study shows that monitoring the skin microbes of whales could offer a way to assess their health and nutrition over different seasons and environmental circumstances, along with detecting how they are affected by climate change and human related impacts on marine ecosystems.

Figuring out the specific roles of the core bacteria will be the next step in the research effort.

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