Studying Bowhead Whale Behavior with Drones #drone #droneday

From PLOS One via the New York Times:

Overall, our observation of skin irregularities (e.g., mottled skin pattern, sharp light gray lines, loose epidermis) of various age-classes (juveniles, sub-adults and adults) provides strong evidence that molting is pervasive for bowhead whales during summer in Cumberland Sound. In Cumberland Sound, molting occurred in shallow, warm coastal areas that had low-salinity surface waters (characteristic of sub-Arctic fiords), and appeared to be facilitated by rubbing on large rocks. The elevated water temperature in rock-rubbing habitat may stimulate epidermal growth [11,48], whereby increased water temperature elevates skin temperature and enhances the rate of cutaneous metabolic processes [11]. Furthermore, increased ambient temperatures promotes cutaneous blood flow, bringing nutrients and hormones (e.g., thyroid hormone) known to stimulate epidermal proliferation [11]. Such habitat is comparable to areas where beluga whales rub on rocky substrate in estuaries [24,25], and where bowheads belonging to the Okhotsk Sea population were observed molting [11,15,48].

Our findings lend support to previous hypotheses that molting is facilitated by pronounced changes in oceanographic conditions such as water temperature [18], and suggest that rock-rubbing behavior is used to facilitate the molting process through exfoliation. Additional research needs to address questions regarding the seasonality of the molt (i.e., is molting more pronounced during summer months or does it occur uniformly and continuously throughout the year?) by collecting year-round aerial imagery (excluding winter months with 24 hour darkness), and monitoring the skin condition of bowhead whales over time. Finally, our observations provide evidence that the function of “rock-nosing” observed by whalers, scientists, and northern community members is related to exfoliation to facilitate molting.

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