Bowhead whales migrate north to exfoliate their skin

Researchers have found that bowhead whales travel to Cumberland Sound in order to clean their skin.
By Harry Marcolis | Nov 27, 2017
Scientists have discovered that one of the main reasons bowhead whales travel all the way to Cumberland Sound, Nunavut during the summer is to exfoliate their skin, a new study published in PLOS One reports.

People have recorded bowhead whales rubbing their backs on rocks since the 19th century. However, though most researchers are aware of this behavior, nobody has been able to discern the reason behind it.

To shed light on the puzzling display, a team of international researchers studied the different behaviors of the massive creatures. They hoped constantly monitoring the mammals would give them an explanation why they rub up against rocks.

In the study, the team used drones to follow and observe the whales. That revealed that the aquatic creatures were scratching against the rocks in order to get rid of dead or old skin. The finding took the team by surprise because they did not initially set out to solve the mystery behind the whale's exfoliation. Rather, they wanted to observe how the whale's feeding behavior has been affected by climate change.

"This was an incidental observation," explained lead author Sarah Fortune, a researcher at Colombia University, in a statement. "We were there to document their prey and feeding behavior, but we noticed some strange behavior near the shore."

This research shows the area of Cumberland Sound is not just a feeding ground. It also gives insight into whale behavior and helps scientists better understand their migrations. The team next plans to expand on their research to see what else the behavior can tell them about how whales deal with dead skin.

"We now know that Cumberland Sound serves as a habitat for feeding and molting," added Fortune, according to Tech Times. "Very little is known about molting in any of the large whale species."

Researchers are not yet sure why the mammals choose Cumberland Sound for their exfoliation. However, they think it is because the relatively warm water there makes it easier for the whales to remove dead skin. Only further study will tell.

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