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Examining bacterial communities associated with the skin of humpback whales

Tracy Mincer, Amy Apprill, Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry


Humans harbor an abundant community of microorganisms on their outer skin layer
which provides important health benefits, but can vary in composition according to
environmental and health-related factors. Understanding the composition and role of
microbial communities associated with marine mammal skin may also provide important
insight into if and how these communities are linked to their health state. Recent research
examining the skin of North Pacific humpback whales discovered that the whales’ posses
a distinct skin-associated microbiota, and that the skin primarily associates with novel
groups of ‘humpback-specific’ bacteria. The whales also harbored a community of less
abundant bacteria which differed between individuals and may be linked to their
individual life history events such as exposure to environmental influences or interactions
with other animals. We propose to determine if the ‘humpback-specific’ bacteria are
associated with the skin of humpback whales from different populations inhabiting
diverse ocean basins (North Pacific, Oceania, and North Atlantic). We will examine the
composition of the bacterial community and determine the location of the dominant
bacterial groups within the epithelial skin. The data generated from this study will allow
us to understand the characteristics of bacteria associated with healthy humpback whale
skin, provide us the opportunity to evaluate how oceanic and population influences affect
their skin microbiota, and allow us to explore if skin-associated bacterial communities
provide an indication of an animal’s health state. This project will provide the foundation
to assess if skin-associated bacterial communities are a useful diagnostic tool for the
health of wild marine mammals.

Last updated: March 26, 2012