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“Game-Changing” Study Uses Genetics to Study Beluga Whales

One white. one gray beluga swimming in water. Shot from aerial view.

A study published in February used skin samples from live Cook Inlet belugas to determine their age. Before, researchers had to rely on tooth samples from beached or subsistence-hunted whales to learn this information. Now, researchers can use the epigenetic information taken from these skin samples.

Dr. Eleanor Bors, lead writer on the recent study, explains how her research team examined methylation to determine the age of beluga whales.

“The idea was that we had this small skin sample and then we also had these teeth. Essentially you can look at the rings on a tooth, kind of like tree rings, and figure out how old the whale was based on how many rings there are. With that information, then I was able to take the skin samples and look at this methylation level. So can we use that methylation pattern and that age data to figure out the relationship between methylation and age?”

– Dr. Eleanor Bors

Methylation is a biological process that gets the genetic gears turning and switches different actions on or off. Methylation and other methods of epigenetics can help scientists understand the development and treatment of diseases and other environmental influences.

The study of genetics is fairly new; the study of epigenetics is even newer. Studies have already been conducted to figure out these “methylation clocks” in humpback whales, bottlenose dolphins, and even humans. This is the first time it has been done with beluga whales.

While this study has been done with the beluga whale population in Cook Inlet, Dr. Tracy Romano, a researcher with the University of Connecticut who studies beluga populations in northern Alaska, says that this new study will significantly impact research on the St. Lawrence Island beluga population and the Chukchi Sea population.

“Now with this new method, you can actually get a biopsy from a free-swimming animal which is really exciting in terms of health and disease. Now we have [methylation data for age] to match what ages these animals are, and if, say for example, certain pathogens are impacting certain ages; that’s important information. So the method described in this paper is really game-changing.”

– Dr. Tracy Romano

As the Arctic’s climate continues to change, new tools like epigenetics can give researchers more data to help better understand how these beluga whales are succeeding or failing in adapting to a changing climate, and what can be done to ensure their survival.

Image at top: A Cook Inlet beluga adult (white) and juvenile (gray) swim in silty water. Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries.

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