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Skinny Whale Syndrome

written by: Rose Kivi•edited by: Niki Fears•updated: 12/8/2009

Gray whales are losing weight and facing the possibility of starvation. Scientist's have dubbed this plight of the gray whale, "Skinny Whale Syndrome".

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    Evidence of Skinny Whale Syndrome

    Eastern Pacific gray whales have been spotted with signs of malnutrition. The whales appear skinny and malnourished. Dr. William Megill, a scientist with Earthwatch, said "We certainly saw in Mexico this winter a very large number of starving whales". He goes on to describe viewing whales with post cranial depression. The depressions are a result of a lack of normal fat. He estimates the eastern Pacific gray whale population to be between 15,000 and 18,000, a population number much lower than previously thought. It appears that the whales have slowed down on breeding. Possibly because they are spending their normal breeding time in search of food.

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    Gray whale picture from NOAA photo gallery.
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    Evidence of Population Decline

    Accurate historical data on the numbers of eastern Pacific gray whales does not exist. Scientist's at Stanford conducted genetic research using DNA samples collected from wild gray whales. The DNA showed enough genetic variation in the whales to point to historic populations of 150,000 or more. From this data we can determine that the gray whale population has significantly decreased. We can also determine that the ocean that currently does not appear to be able to support a population of under 20,000 gray whales, was once able to support over 100,000 gray whales.

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    Cause of Skinny Whale Syndrome

    The exact cause of Skinny Whale Syndrome is not known. The whales could be starving due to lack of food, pollution, over fishing, disease or a combination of factors. The Bering Sea has experienced increased water temperatures due to global warming that has killed off the gray whales' normal food source. Gray whales normally arrive in large numbers to feed in their primary feeding grounds, the Bering Sea. Now with global warming, the numbers of gray whales in the area have dwindled. The whales that do arrive at the Bering Sea, are forced to eat alternate foods in an attempt to survive.

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    The Furture of Gray Whales in the Eastern Pacific

    Steve Palumbi, a professor of Marine Sciences at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station said, "Decades ago, whales were the first creatures to tell us that we were over fishing the oceans. Maybe now they are trying to tell us the oceans are in deeper trouble". Gray whales are generally considered a gauge of how well the ocean is able to support life. If the ocean is not able to support the gray whales, the ocean may not be able to support the rest of the oceans inhabitants either. While most experts do not believe the gray whale population as a whole is in immediate danger, they do recognize that there is a real potential for a future problem.