Nav: Home

Monitoring bacteria on whale skin

February 14, 2018

Just like with humans, the skin on marine mammals serves as an important line of defense against pathogens in their environment. A new study sheds light on the skin microbiome--a group of microorganisms that live on skin--in healthy humpback whales, which could aid in future efforts to monitor their health.

Researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Duke University, and the University of California, Santa Cruz, analyzed bacteria on skin samples collected in early summer from 89 healthy humpback whales in waters off the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Nearly all had six core communities of bacteria living on their skin. By late summer, after the whales had been feeding and gained weight, the scientists found that four new groups of bacteria emerged and joined the microbiome on almost all the animals.

The study, which is the largest-ever of the whale microbiome, shows that monitoring whales' skin microbes could offer a way to assess their health and nutrition over different seasons and environmental circumstances, and also to detect how they are affected by climate change and human-caused impacts on ocean ecosystems. The paper published February 14, 2018, in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

"Humpback whales are a particularly interesting species for microbiome studies because they are found in every ocean," says lead author K.C. Bierlich, a PhD student at Duke University and former WHOI guest student. "They regularly migrate between high-latitude summer feeding grounds and low-latitude winter breeding grounds, which exposes their skin to a wide variety of ocean conditions and environments."

The research team sampled skin from humpback whales just arriving to feed in waters off the Western Antarctic Peninsula in early summer in 2010 and again in late summer in 2013. The six core skin bacteria found in this study overlap with the researchers' previous studies of skin samples from whales in tropical waters and in waters off Cape Cod, says Amy Apprill, a microbiologist at WHOI and coauthor.

The analyses of skin samples in late summer showed that the whales' microbiome changes, perhaps in response to seasonal shifts in water temperature. But the microbes may also be affected by less predictable changes, such as the amounts of sea ice, Apprill says. Variations in whales' skin microbiome could help scientists diagnose any changes in whales' health in response to pollution, ecosystem disruptions, and climate change.

Researchers aren't sure yet how the bacteria are specifically interacting with the whales or each other. They could be keeping the whales clean of fouling organisms or producing antibiotics to fend off potential pathogens, says Apprill.

Figuring out the specific roles of the core bacteria will be the next step in this important research that could lead to the development of a health index to assess the overall health of these endangered marine mammals.

"The results are really exciting and encouraging in regards to developing the skin microbiome as a health index for large whales," Apprill says. "With a health index, we need to be able to detect changes--both in nutrition and overall health, as well as in the environment--and the impacts those have on the whales."
The WHOI research was supported by a crowdfunding project, "Bacterial Buddies," which raised $6,000 to cover lab and DNA sequencing costs.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the ocean's role in the changing global environment. For more information, please visit

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Related Climate Change Articles:

The black forest and climate change
Silver and Douglas firs could replace Norway spruce in the long run due to their greater resistance to droughts.
For some US counties, climate change will be particularly costly
A highly granular assessment of the impacts of climate change on the US economy suggests that each 1°Celsius increase in temperature will cost 1.2 percent of the country's gross domestic product, on average.
Climate change label leads to climate science acceptance
A new Cornell University study finds that labels matter when it comes to acceptance of climate science.
Was that climate change?
A new four-step 'framework' aims to test the contribution of climate change to record-setting extreme weather events.
It's more than just climate change
Accurately modeling climate change and interactive human factors -- including inequality, consumption, and population -- is essential for the effective science-based policies and measures needed to benefit and sustain current and future generations.
Climate change scientists should think more about sex
Climate change can have a different impact on male and female fish, shellfish and other marine animals, with widespread implications for the future of marine life and the production of seafood.
Climate change prompts Alaska fish to change breeding behavior
A new University of Washington study finds that one of Alaska's most abundant freshwater fish species is altering its breeding patterns in response to climate change, which could impact the ecology of northern lakes that already acutely feel the effects of a changing climate.
Uncertainties related to climate engineering limit its use in curbing climate change
Climate engineering refers to the systematic, large-scale modification of the environment using various climate intervention techniques.
Public holds polarized views about climate change and trust in climate scientists
There are gaping divisions in Americans' views across every dimension of the climate debate, including causes and cures for climate change and trust in climate scientists and their research, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.
The psychology behind climate change denial
In a new thesis in psychology, Kirsti Jylhä at Uppsala University has studied the psychology behind climate change denial.

Related Climate Change Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Jumpstarting Creativity
Our greatest breakthroughs and triumphs have one thing in common: creativity. But how do you ignite it? And how do you rekindle it? This hour, TED speakers explore ideas on jumpstarting creativity. Guests include economist Tim Harford, producer Helen Marriage, artificial intelligence researcher Steve Engels, and behavioral scientist Marily Oppezzo.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#524 The Human Network
What does a network of humans look like and how does it work? How does information spread? How do decisions and opinions spread? What gets distorted as it moves through the network and why? This week we dig into the ins and outs of human networks with Matthew Jackson, Professor of Economics at Stanford University and author of the book "The Human Network: How Your Social Position Determines Your Power, Beliefs, and Behaviours".