(opens in new tab)
An extremely rare white humpback whale has been spotted frolicking with a pod of dolphins near Australia’s coastline, according to aerial video footage. And it may have a rather famous relative.
The ghostly cetacean was spotted about 500 meters off the coast of Fingal Head in New South Wales on April 21. the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) was first noticed by 16-year-old local Brayden Blake, who was surfing at the time; when Blake fell off his shelf, he heard the whale’s singing underwater. After returning to the beach, Blake spotted the white whale almost immediately and ran home to get a drone with a camera. The young surfer then managed to capture video footage (opens in new tab) of the humpback whale swimming with a pod of dolphins.
“I’ve seen regular humpback whales before, but this one didn’t look the same at all,” Blake . told me the guard (opens in new tab). “Every time it came back to gasp, it was white” instead of black or dark gray like other humpback whales. The white whale finally disappeared after about 20 minutes as it plunged into the depths of the ocean. The encounter was a “once in a lifetime” experience, Blake added.
Blake’s white whale resembles the famous Migaloo, a male albino humpback whale that was first seen in Queensland, Australia in 1981. However, the new whale is smaller than Migaloo and has gray spots, while Migaloo was all white. Experts therefore suspect that this is most likely a second white humpback whale from the same population. (Migaloo means “white guy” in the language of the Aboriginal community living near where the albino whale was discovered).
“This is the first time I’ve been able to say that the white whale I’m looking at could be a white whale other than Migaloo,” Wally Franklin, a marine ecologist at Southern Cross University in Australia who has studied Migaloo ever since. 1982, told Australian news site Nine news (opens in new tab). “It’s an incredibly rare event.”
Related: 7 strangely colored animals that caught our eye in 2021
The sighting of a second white whale, which scientists believe is likely a young male, has sparked speculation online that the new humpback whale could be Migaloo’s son or another close relative.
This population of humpback whales migrates through Australian waters between May and November before returning south Antarctica to feed on krill. According to Nine News, people have seen Migaloo almost every year between late June and early July since he was first sighted. However, researchers suspect that younger males are the first to start annual migrations, which would explain the appearance of this newly spotted whale in April.
“The timing of the sighting is consistent with it being a younger whale as it is very early in the season,” Franklin told Nine News, and this whale’s young age could support the idea that this is the son of Migaloo, because this type of white coloring is largely genetic. There’s a good chance the new white humpback whale could be seen again and photographed properly before the year’s migration season ends, which could shed light on the relationship between the two individuals based on comparisons of their fin and tail shapes, he added. ready.
(opens in new tab)
However, not everyone is convinced that the new white humpback whale is related to Migaloo. The main reason for this is the blotchy white discoloration on the humpback’s skin, Vanessa Pirotta, a naturalist at Macquarie University in Australia who specializes in cetaceans, told The Guardian. “It makes me think it’s not albino,” suggesting the two whales have nothing to do with each other, she said.
White discoloration in whales can be caused by two different conditions: albinism and leucism. Migaloo has albinism, which means that he is genetically incapable of producing melanin, a pigment responsible for skin, hair and eye color. Albinism can also cause animals to have red eyes and can affect their ability to see properly. However, the new white humpback has patches of gray skin, suggesting it has leucism, which instead affects the ability of individual pigment cells to produce melanin rather than prevent cells from producing pigment at all.
Albinism and leucism are “extremely rare” among whales and are likely to affect less than 1 in 10,000 humpback whales, Erich Hoyt, a researcher at Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) in the UK and author of several books on cetaceans, told Live Science .com in an email. In other animal groups, these conditions can dramatically affect an individual’s chances of survival. However, that’s typically not the case with cetaceans, he added.
“In species where sight is important for hunting (birds, land mammals, etc.) and where white individuals stand out from predators, the white individuals die young and don’t often come close to maturity and reproduction,” Hoyt said. “In contrast, whales can use their acoustic senses to feed even in the dark or at night and have few, if any, predators.”
Albinism is caused by a recessive gene and is known to be passed on to offspring of captive parents through selective breeding. In 2021, a pair of albino crocodiles was born to albino parents at a Florida safari park, Live Science previously reported. However, it is less clear whether the genes that cause albinism can also cause leucism in offspring who did not inherit albinism, which would have happened if this new whale is indeed related to Migaloo.
Even if the two conditions aren’t directly linked, it’s possible that an albino parent like Migaloo could randomly pass on leucistic genes to their offspring, just like any other normally colored individual, Hoyt wrote. “But I suspect this is so rare that there aren’t many examples,” he added.
Unfortunately, it is challenging to confirm whether the two white humpback whales are actually related. According to Nine News, there are now an estimated 40,000 individuals in the Australian humpback whale population. This makes determining genetic relationships between individuals tricky, even if they are both white, Pirotta told The Guardian.
The only way to know if the two individuals are related is to take a genetic sample, such as tissue or poo, from the newly discovered white whale. In 2004, researchers were able to obtain a genetic sample of Migaloo, which has since been used in several studies, according to the Pacific Whale Foundation (opens in new tab)n, a non-profit organization based in Hawaii. If scientists could collect a genetic sample of the newly spotted white humpback whale, they might be able to settle the debate. But for now it remains a mystery.
Originally published on Live Science.