A massive fin whale seen struggling in 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 55-foot-long, 40-ton animal off the coast of the city of Cullera.
The whale was initially believed to have become entangled in a fishing net as it was listing in shallow water and appeared to be floundering near the Cullera lighthouse.
But upon deploying to the scene, the oceanarium team quickly realized that the cetacean was not entangled and was, in fact, suffering from a severely deformed spine, meaning it was unable to swim properly.
The whale was initially believed to have become entangled in a fishing net while listing in shallow water.
Veterinarians and biologists from the Valencia oceanarium were alerted last Saturday to the presence of the whale and went to investigate.
It is unknown how the whale developed such severe scoliosis, or to what extent the condition is debilitating.
Biologists from the Valencia Oceanographic Foundation reported that they hoped to place a tracking device on the whale, which after a while moved away from the coast and returned to the sea.
But they said the combination of shallow water and the whale’s highly irregular anatomy meant it wasn’t possible to do so.
The fin whale species is believed to have a global population of between 50,000 and 90,000, according to the World Wildlife Foundation, and is classified as ‘vulnerable’.
Whales are not known to suffer from scoliosis, although there have been cases where cetaceans have shown significant spinal injuries as a result of trauma, for example after a collision with a ship.
However, a recent study revealed earlier this year that the whales developed their incredible size through four genes linked to gigantism.
These genes, the researchers said, helped foster their large mass, but also mitigate related disadvantageous consequences, including increased cancer risk and reduced reproductive performance.
Cetaceans, the group of marine mammals that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises, evolved about 50 million years ago from vaguely wolf-like terrestrial ancestors that belonged to a group of mammals called artiodactyls that includes cows, pigs, sheep and many others today.
“Body size is a complex result of many genes, pathways, and physical and ecological processes,” said geneticist Mariana Nery of the State University of 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 gigantism in cetaceans from a molecular perspective.”
The whale can be seen just below the surface of the sea off the coast of Valencia.
A Civil Guard boat is seen off the coast of Cullera chasing a whale affected by scoliosis
Fin whales are the largest species on the planet behind blue whales. They can grow up to 80 feet long (24 meters)
Blue whales can reach about 30 meters (100 feet) in length, fin whales about 24 meters (80 feet), sperm whales and bowhead whales about 18 meters (60 feet), humpback and right whales about 15 meters (50 feet). feet) and gray whales about 45 feet (13.5 meters).
After evaluating nine genes, including some associated with increased body size in other mammals, the researchers found that four, named GHSR, IGFBP7, NCAPG and PLAG1, appear to have gained importance during the evolution of great whales.
GHSR is a gene involved in the release of growth hormone through the pituitary gland, body weight, energy metabolism, appetite, and fat storage. It is also associated with the control of cell proliferation and programmed cell death. Tumors are essentially formed by uncontrolled cell growth.
IGFBP7 is a gene involved in promoting cell growth and division. There is evidence that it acts as a cancer suppressor in prostate, breast, lung, and colorectal tumors.
NCAPG, a gene associated with growth in people, horses, donkeys, cows, pigs, and chickens, is 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.
‘Gigantism in the current lineage of cetaceans is recent, estimated to be approximately 5 million years old. Before that, there were large animals, such as the Basilosaurus, but these were exceptions, and most cetaceans did not exceed 10 meters in length,” said the study’s lead author, Felipe Andre Silva, who worked on the research. while earning his master’s degree in genetics. and molecular biology at UNICAMP.
“Gigantism can bring some advantages, such as a lower chance of being preyed and a higher chance of obtaining food,” Silva added.