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.
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.
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.
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.