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Article Released Wed-2nd-August-2006 17:53 GMT
Contact: Ruth Institution: Nature Publishing Group
 Could dandruff save the whales?

Researchers in Australia are developing a non-invasive way of telling how old a whale is, by scooping up the skin flakes it sheds into the sea, according to a News Exclusive in Nature this week. If they succeed, then one of the key arguments in favour of killing whales for scientific research will be dead in the water.

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News: Could dandruff save the whales?

Researchers in Australia are developing a non-invasive way of telling how old a whale is, by scooping up the skin flakes it sheds into the sea, according to a News Exclusive in Nature this week. If they succeed, then one of the key arguments in favour of killing whales for scientific research will be dead in the water.

The researchers say the need for this is urgent, as Japan is set to increase its annual catch of whales for scientific research, including, for the first time, humpback and fin whales.

Scientists need to know how old whales are so they can assess how well populations are recovering after being devastated by commercial whaling over the past century. Knowing whales’ ages will also help reveal insights into their mating tactics, behaviour and even how long they live.

At the moment, baleen whales such as humpback whales, which lack the teeth often used to age other whale species, are aged by dissecting them and counting the layers that form in their ear wax—a procedure that can only be done on dead whales.

In collaboration with scientists in the US and New Zealand, the Australian team is developing a new method that relies on extracting DNA from the skin flakes and looking at telomeres, structures that cap the end of chromosomes. Like countdown timers, telomeres progressively shorten with age in many animal species. Early results hint that telomeres could give a useful guide to a whale’s age, although the efficacy of the technique has yet to be conclusively proved.

Researcher contact

Peter Harrison (Southern Cross University Whale Research Centre, Lismore, Australia)
Tel: +61 266 203774; E-mail: pharriso@scu.edu.au

Contacts for background information

Carina Dennis (Journalist, Nature)
Tel: +61 417 696 291; E-mail: c.dennis@nature.com

Claire Ainsworth (Senior Reporter and Editor, Nature)
Tel: +44 207 843 4627; E-mail: c.ainsworth@nature.com

Media contact

Ruth Francis, Nature London
Tel: +44 20 7843 4562; E-mail r.francis@nature.com

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Keywords associated to this article: whales, age, dandruff
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