Bowhead whales are arctic/sub-arctic whales that live in icy northern waters and have blubber up to 50cm thick. During the summer months they can be spotted in slightly warmer waters – for example, if the waters of Cumberland Sound in Nunavut (North Eastern Canada, just west of Greenland). This might seem cold to us, but for bowhead whales it‘s a nice warmer change from their arctic environment.
Bowheads have been thought to be grooming, resting or hanging around rocks in areas like Nunavut by scientists, Inuit tribes and whalers from previous centuries. In 2012, an arctic exhibition encountered a large group of bowhead whales that left floating skin behind, indicating that molting had taken place. It was not until 2016 that this behavior was finally recorded by a research team from Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Researchers saw bowhead whales exhibiting strange behaviors in these shallow waters, with individuals repeatedly surfacing, rolling, doing headstands and loudly vocalizing. When they sent a drone up to record footage it became obvious that the whales were using rocks in the shallow waters to remove skin – a nice way to exfoliate! Of the 81 individuals observed, 40% showed signs of ''rock rubbing'' to remove the skin. It‘s thought that this helps to remove skin damaged by the sun, as well as getting rid of algae, parasites and to help the whales regulate their temperature.
Bowhead whales are not alone in their love for exfoliating – beluga whales and orcas have also been seen rubbing themselves in shallow waters in gravel and mud. Research into these behaviors can help to define areas and habitats that may be crucial to the long-term survival of these species.
Click here to see a video of bowhead whales exfoliating, courtesy of Science Magazine.
All photo credits go to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries.