Researchers have been studying whales for a long time, but it turns out they may have missed an important element in their migration patterns. Now, new research is revealing that the large mammals may just migrate such long distances to shed their skin.
"I think people have not given skin molt due consideration when it comes to whales, but it is an important physiological need that could be met by migrating to warmer waters," said in a statement Robert Pitman, lead author of the new paper and marine ecologist with Oregon State University's Marine Mammal Institute.
The process of animals shedding their skin, fur, or feathers is known as molting and it may just be what is responsible for the whales' large migrations. This because when in the freezing waters of Antarctica, whales conserve body heat by diverting blood flow away from their skin.
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Although that is great for staying warm, when it comes to molting that process reduces the regeneration of skin cells and halts the normal sloughing of skin.
The researchers argue that warmer waters would enable whales to revive their skin metabolism and molt in an environment that does not drain their body heat. This is an interesting revelation as it was previously assumed that whales went to warmer waters to give birth.
"Instead of whales migrating to the tropics or subtropics for calving, whales could be traveling to warm waters for skin maintenance and perhaps find it adaptive to bear their calves while they are there," the scientists wrote in their paper published in Marine Mammal Science.
This theory is supported by scientists noting that whales in frigid Antarctic waters are often discolored by a thick yellow film of microscopic diatoms. The film could be an indication that the mammals were not undergoing their normal, "self-cleaning" skin molt.