Whales can have lice.
Scientists have examined the genes of “whale lice” to track whale evolution.
The small parasitic crustaceans were taken off right whales, which have been driven to the brink of extinction in some waters by commercial hunting.
The genetics of the lice reveal their hosts split into three species 5-6 million years ago, and these were all equally abundant before whaling began.
The study, carried out by University of Utah scientists, is reported in the journal Molecular Ecology.
‘Right’ for hunting
Right whales were the first whale to be commercially hunted, 1,000 years ago.
They were so named because they were the “right” whale to kill; their blubber made their carcasses float for easy recovery.
They can reach a massive 18m and 70 tonnes.
Two of the three species are on the brink of extinction. Only about 200 survive in the North Pacific, 350 in the North Atlantic, whilst the Southern Hemisphere population numbers around 8,000 to 10,000.
The new research studied the genes of so-called whale lice – not lice as we would normally think of them, but harmless, small crustacean parasites that live on the surface of the marine mammals.
The idea was to understand the evolution of these giants by getting at the genetics of creatures that have spent most time with them.
It is an approach that has been used before with other animals – but this is a first for whales.