A giant fin whale struggling through the water off the coast of Spain has been diagnosed with a severe case of scoliosis of unknown origin.
Veterinarians and biologists from the Valencia Oceanarium were alerted last Saturday to the presence of the 16-metre-long, 40-tonne animal off the coast of the town of Cullera.
It was initially believed that the whale had become entangled in a fishing net while swinging in shallow waters and appeared to have difficulty getting close to the Cullera lighthouse.
But when they got to the scene, the oceanarium team quickly realized the cetacean wasn’t entangled and, in fact, suffered from a severely deformed spine that prevented it from swimming properly.
It was initially believed that the whale had become entangled in a fishing net while swinging in shallow water
Veterinarians and biologists from the Oceanarium of Valencia were alerted to the presence of the whale last Saturday and went to investigate
It’s not known how the whale developed such severe scoliosis, or to what extent the condition is debilitating
Biologists from the Oceanographic Foundation of Valencia reported that they hoped to mount a tracking device on the whale, which after some time stumbled away from the shoreline and back out to sea.
But they said the combination of shallow water and the whale’s highly irregular anatomy meant this wasn’t possible.
According to the World Wildlife Foundation, the fin whale species has a global population of between 50,000 and 90,000 and is listed as “Vulnerable.”
Whales are not known to suffer from scoliosis, although there have been cases where cetaceans have sustained significant spinal injuries as a result of trauma, such as after being hit by a ship.
However, a recent study revealed earlier this year that whales evolved their incredible size through four genes linked to gigantism.
These genes, the researchers said, helped promote their large mass, but also mitigate related ill effects, including a higher risk of cancer and lower reproductive output.
Cetaceans, the marine mammal group that includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises, evolved about 50 million years ago from fuzzy terrestrial wolf-like ancestors that belonged to a mammalian assemblage called artiodactyls that includes today’s cows, pigs, sheep, and many others.
“Body size is a complex result of many genes, pathways, and physical and environmental processes,” said geneticist Mariana Nery of Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP) in Brazil, co-author of the study published in January in the journal Scientific Reports.
“Our results are among the first to study cetacean gigantism from a molecular perspective.”
The whale can be seen just below the surface of the sea off the coast of Valencia
Off the coast of Cullera, a vigilante boat is seen chasing a whale stricken with scoliosis
Fin whales are the largest species in the world behind blue whales. They can grow up to 24 meters long
Blue whales can grow to about 100 feet (30 meters), fin whales about 80 feet (24 meters), sperm whales and bowhead whales about 60 feet (18 meters), humpback whales and right whales about 50 feet (15 meters), and gray whales about 45 feet (13.5 meters).
After reviewing nine genes, including some associated with increased body size in other mammals, the researchers found that four — named GHSR, IGFBP7, NCAPG and PLAG1 — seem to have gained prominence during the evolution of large whales.
GHSR is a gene involved in the release of growth hormone via the pituitary gland, body weight, energy metabolism, appetite and fat accumulation. It is also associated with controlling cell proliferation and programmed cell death. Tumors are essentially formed by runaway cell growth.
IGFBP7 is a gene involved in promoting cell growth and division. There is some evidence that it acts as a cancer suppressant in prostate, breast, lung and colorectal tumors.
NCAPG, a gene associated with growth in humans, horses, donkeys, cattle, pigs and chickens, has been linked to increased body size, weight gain, cell proliferation and cell life cycles.
PLAG1, a gene associated with body growth in cattle, pigs and sheep, is involved in embryonic growth and cell survival.
“Giantism in the current lineage of cetaceans is recent, estimated at about 5 million years ago. Before that, there were large-sized animals, such as Basilosaurus, but these were exceptions, and most cetaceans were no longer than 10 meters,” said lead author Felipe Andre Silva, who worked on the study while completing his master’s degree in genetics. and molecular biology at UNICAMP.
“Giantism may have a number of benefits, such as a lower chance of being hunted and a higher chance of getting food,” Silva added.