Humpback Whales Can’t Tell Us Who They Hangout With, But Their Lice Can

Source: Hakai Magazine/Amorina Kingdon 

Photo: Humberto Braojos/Unsplash


Having lice is one of life’s lower moments. It causes much wailing, rending of garments, purchasing of funny little combs, and a crushing feeling of ickiness. But lice are common in the animal kingdom, afflicting everything from a teensy mouse to one of Earth’s most majestic creatures, the humpback whale. And according to a new paper, those lice may offer a peek into the whale’s world-spanning social networks.

Seven breeding populations of humpback whale summer in Antarctic waters. In winter, they migrate north into different parts of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. How, and even if, these populations interact, especially during their annual migrations, has been a scientific mystery. But the study’s lead author Tammy Iwasa-Arai, a postdoctoral researcher at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, has unearthed some clues. She focused on lice, common whale parasites, betting that they would offer more insight into the whales’ social contacts than satellite tags or other tracking methods.

“With a satellite, you are studying one single whale,” Iwasa-Arai says. Lice, however, allow researchers to study interactions between whale populations. And that means better data for policy and conservation.

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Photo: Humberto Braojos/Unsplash

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