Did You Know?
The progression of Burned’s skin condition has made her difficult to identify from time to time!

About Burned

There are many ways to assess the health of a whale. In our lab, we calculate body condition from drone images to determine how fat or skinny a whale is, examine different hormones from their poop, and assess growth rates via length measurements from drone images. Another health assessment metric that we explore in the lab is the skin and scarring on the individuals that we see in our central Oregon study area. By conducting a skin and scarring analysis, we can identify scarring patterns and lesions that may indicate interactions with human activities and track the progression of skin diseases that will help us understand the prevalence and impacts of pathogens on whales. One skin condition that we are particularly interested in tracking appears as a thick white or gray layer that can mask a gray whale’s natural pigmentation. An example of a whale that has experienced this skin condition is “Burned.”

Burned is a female who is at least 9 years old (as of 2024), as she was first documented in the PCFG range in 2015. We saw Burned for the first time in 2016. At the time, we noticed small, isolated, gray patches of the skin condition on both sides of Burned’s body. Throughout the years as we have continued to resight Burned, we noticed the skin condition spreading progressively across her body. We saw the skin condition at its maximum extent in 2023 when, at first glance, Burned was hardly recognizable (see image to right). Luckily, we can identify gray whales using more than just their pigmentation patterns (learn more on our whale identification page). Interestingly, when we saw Burned in June 2024, it appeared that the skin condition completely disappeared (see ID images below)! Burned is just one example of whales with this skin condition, leaving us with many questions about its origin and impact on the whales: What causes the skin condition (viral, fungal, bacterial?); How it is transmitted (via air or contact?); Is it harmful to the whale (weakened immune system?). Our research is aimed at addressing these questions to make this skin condition a little less mysterious. 

Facts and Figures

How to Identify Burned:

Without the skin condition, Burned's markings are rather subtle with one small white dot in front of her dorsal hump
Burned's knuckles are her most distinctive feature, both in terms of their shape and spacing
Burned's Health History
While we have not flown the drone very many times over Burned, when we have managed to get body condition measurements from her, we can see that her body condition has been fairly stable within and between years. Her BAI values have generally been in the mid to high 20s, which would indicate a relatively good body condition, compared to some other whales that we see. Interestingly, these values seem not to have changed very much between 2017 when Burned was a juvenile, to 2023 when she reached maturity.

We fly drones over whales and then measure how skinny or fat they are from the images we capture. We compare the body condition of whales using an index called the Body Area Index (BAI), which is like the Body Mass Index (BMI) used to compare the body condition of humans. Small BAI values mean the whale is skinnier and larger BAI values indicate the whale is fatter.

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