Killer whales rub their bodies against icebergs, and may be peeled: video

Killer whales rub their bodies against icebergs, and may be peeled: video

Killer whales in Antarctica, photographed in 1981.
Wolfgang Kahler/Getty Images

  • National Geographic said it captured the first footage of killer whales striking an iceberg.
  • The killer whales may be using the iceberg to peel off their skin, which also contains algae buildup.
  • Scientists say killer whales also migrate thousands of miles just to shed their skin.

Footage of orcas living in Antarctica’s frigid waters has been captured rubbing icebergs in what could be an innovative skincare technique.

Drone footage captured by National Geographic showed a pod of killer whales performing a rare ritual in the new documentary series “Amazing Animal Journeys.” National Geographic said this is the first time this behavior has been recorded on video. Newsweek also shared a clip of the footage.

In footage shown in the episode “Home at the end of the Earth” that aired on November 20, several killer whales can be seen approaching an iceberg and then rubbing and rolling on it. The clip appears to show a mother guiding a calf toward the ice and then rolling over to teach the calf how to do so. Whales also have yellow-green algae that builds up on their skin.

The docuseries says killer whales rub against the ice to peel off their skin, a temporary solution until they migrate thousands of miles north to warmer waters so they can shed it properly.

Like humans, whales and dolphins typically shed their skin continuously, and most have no problem doing so in warm waters. However, for killer whale populations in cold waters, such as Antarctica, thermoregulation can become an issue, making it difficult to maintain blood flow to their skins and potentially preventing whales from molting properly.

In response, whales could migrate to molt, according to a 2019 paper published in the journal Marine Mammal Science. The study found that some Antarctic killer whales make a non-stop migration of approximately 7,000 miles to warmer waters that takes six to eight weeks.

While the reasons for whale migration remain mysterious, the study argued that evidence suggests that “delayed skin molt could be a major driver of long-distance migration of Antarctic killer whales.” National Geographic described it as “the longest migration in the world for the sole purpose of skin care.”

Robert Bateman, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute and lead author of the 2019 paper, told Business Insider that he agrees that killer whales could use icebergs to flake.

As with humans after a sunburn, a killer whale that sheds its skin may feel itchy, and so could seek relief by rubbing against the iceberg, especially if migration to warmer waters is delayed, Pittman said.

“They probably don’t need to do the scrubbing on the ice,” he said, but added that they might do so if they have not yet fed enough to continue the migration, during which they often fast.

Algae buildup can also play a role and may accelerate killer whales’ desire to shed their skin, causing them to rub against the ice.

“It’s not good for algae to build up,” Pittman said. “It puts pressure on the body. They have to carry it and they don’t swim efficiently.”

When whales go to the tropics and shed their skin, algae buildup comes with them, Pittman added.

Similar iceberg friction behavior has also been observed in orca populations in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, Canada. For example, northern resident killer whales swim to the sea floor and rub their bodies against rocks.

Andrew Traits, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia, told Business Insider that killer whales may also enjoy the sensation of rubbing themselves against a cold iceberg, noting that these species are very sensitive to touch.

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