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January 25, 2011

Whale Lice and Genetics

This is my last semester as a student at the University of Utah, and it just so happens that I am finally taking my two introductory courses in Environmental Studies. One of them is Biology 1210.

The first day of class, a few weeks ago, we started off talking about whale lice. Just as there are lice specifically adapted to live on our heads, there are lice adapted to live all over whales. Specifically, we talked about right whales, and a study done at the University of Utah a few years back. My professor explained that the scientists were trying to figure out if the right whales ever circumnavigated the globe, and wanted to examine the DNA of northern and southern hemisphere right whales to make this determination. Apparently, it is difficult to collect DNA from whales without making some people unhappy, so the scientists came up with an inventive solution: lice.

Different types of whale lice live on different areas of the whales. Some are transferred to the baby whales as they nurse from their mothers, which leads to a face-full of lice in adulthood.
(Image via)

Whale lice are much bigger than human lice, just as whales are bigger than humans.
(Image via)

If lice from right whales in the northern hemisphere are genetically related to lice found on right whales in the southern hemisphere, those whales must have been in contact at some point since lice are transferred by contact and cannot survive without a host right whale. Plus, it is much easier to scrape off a few whale lice than a DNA sample from a right whale.

An article from nationalgeographic.com explains more about the research and results.

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