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New Record of Atypical Coloration in a Gray Whale Calf (Eschrichtius robustus) in Laguna Ojo de Liebre, Baja California Sur, Mexico

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Aquatic Mammals 2017, 43(6), 642-646, DOI 10.1578/AM.43.6.2017.642
New Record of Atypical Coloration in a Gray Whale Calf
(Eschrichtius robustus) in Laguna Ojo de Liebre,
Baja California Sur, Mexico
César A. Salinas-Zavala, María V. Morales-Zárate, Andrés González-Peralta,
Rosa J. Aviña-Hernández, and Mariana L. Muzquiz-Villalobos
Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas del Noroeste S.C. [Northwest Biological Research Center],
Avenida Instituto Politécnico Nacional No. 195, Col. Playa Palo de Santa Rita Sur,
CP 26096, La Paz, Baja California Sur, México
E-mail: mzarate04@cibnor.mx
Eastern gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus)
migrate during late autumn/early winter along
the eastern Pacific coast to breeding grounds on
the west coast of the Baja California Peninsula,
Mexico (Swartz et al., 2006). Some calves are born
during the southward migration, but most are born
in lagoons on the west coast of Baja California
at four main sites: (1) Laguna Ojo de Liebre,
(2) Laguna San Ignacio, (3) Laguna Guerrero
Negro, and (4) Bahía Magdalena-Almejas (Jones
& Swartz, 2002; Hoyt, 2005). The first three
lagoons are part of the Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve
and are listed internationally as a United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
(UNESCO) World Heritage Site. The largest salt
producer in the world, Exportadora de Sal (ESSA),
is located in the same area, which has been com-
mitted to the conservation of the environment for
more than 25 y. ESSA has collaborated with the
Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas
(CONANP; National Commission of Natural
Protected Areas) and other important institutions in
studies of the abundance, transit and residence time
of gray whales in the Ojo de Liebre, San Ignacio,
and Guerrero Negro lagoons (CONANP, 2016).
On 17 February 2017, at approximately 1040 h, a
whale calf of an atypical white color was observed
during the recording of environmental parameters
within Laguna Ojo de Liebre from a boat owned
by ESSA that was sailing between the coordinates
27° 38.885 N, 114° 05.278 W and 27° 41.707 N,
114° 05.130 W (points 1 and 2, respectively, in
Figure 1). This gray whale calf was observed
in the company of its mother, which showed the
normal gray coloration characteristic of this spe-
cies (Figure 2a). Based on information collected
by ESSA-CONANP workers, the calf was first
observed on 7 February 2017, and it was esti-
mated to be approximately 3 wks old at that time
(J. Rivera, pers. comm., 17 February 2017).
The calf was called “Costalito de Sal” (“Little
Salt Sack”) because the CONANP workers who
had first observed it had thought it was a float-
ing salt sack (CONANP, 2017). It had a length of
approximately 4.5 m, and its body coloration was
predominantly white with a series of black spots
of irregular size on both sides of the body, appar-
ently with a greater number on the right side. The
spots were larger and lower density towards the
anterior part of the calf’s body and so small as to
appear as tiny freckles in the posterior dorsal part
(Figure 2b-e). Although we do not have a photo-
graph that allows us to observe in detail the col-
oration of the eye, it was possible to observe a
pink-red coloration of the epithelium inside the
blowhole and nasal plugs (Figure 2a & b), which
are usually dark gray even in gray whales of a simi-
lar age or size (Berta et al., 2015), becoming pink
only toward the caudoventral portion of the nasal
passage. This unusual coloration has been observed
in other Mysticeti cetaceans—for example, the
southern right whale (Eubalaena australis; Buono
et al., 2015).
We obtained a photographic record and filmed
three short videos from which some data of the
calf’s appearance and behavior could be obtained.
(These videos are available on the Supplementary
Material page of the Aquatic Mammals website:
www.aquaticmammalsjournal.org/index.php?
option=com_content&view=article&id=10&Ite
mid=147.) We observed the calf for approximately
15 min in the company of its mother; during that
time, the animal surfaced to breathe approximately
12 times, with a mode of 17 s between blows, an
average of 37 s, a minimum of 8 s, and a maxi-
mum of 87 s. Most of the time, it was observed
swimming on the right side of its mother, although
it appeared on the left side as well. Both mother
and calf continued to swim throughout the filming
time. During our observation, another mother–calf
643New Record of Atypical Coloration in a Gray Whale Calf
was recorded, and they had no unusual reaction to
the color of Costalito de Sal. The environmental
parameters of the water of the observation site
are shown in Table 1. We collected information at
both points 1 and 2 at the surface and bottom, but
no significant differences were observed, so we
present integrated values for the water column and
averages for the area only as additional informa-
tion for the records of this whale.
Our observation represents the second record
of an atypical coloration of a gray whale in
Laguna Ojo de Liebre after “Galón de Leche”
(“Milk Gallon”) was observed for the first time
during the 2008-2009 season; and again 6 y later,
during the 2015-2016 season, as a mother with a
calf that presented the typical gray whale color-
ation (CONANP, 2016). In addition, during the
2002-2003 season, Jones (2003a, 2003b) pub-
lished a blog entry referring to a sighting of a
“pure white whale calf” during a whale-watching
trip in Laguna Ojo de Liebre. However, there is
uncertainty regarding whether this may have
been Galón de Leche as a calf since there is no
other record or photograph of it. For this reason,
we are unable to say whether Costalito de Sal is
the second or third record of a whale with atypi-
cal coloration in Laguna Ojo de Liebre. Although
there are many blog posts on social networks and
notices on the official CONANP website, to our
knowledge, this is the first scientific report about
this calf.
Although there are few such reports, the sci-
entific literature contains some well-documented
records of cetaceans with hypomelanism; for
example, Hain & Leatherwood (1982) reported
13 records of individual cetaceans with atypi-
cal white coloration. Another study presented
by Fertl et al. (1999) and updated by Fertl et al.
(2004) reported 11 species of dolphins, ten whales
(seven Mysticeti and three Odontoceti), and two
porpoises, thus adding 23 records of cetacean spe-
cies with anomalously white individuals.
Regarding gray whales, a study by Goebel &
Dahlheim (1979) conducted in the Bering Sea
documented two gray whales with atypical color-
ation, one with a large white spot on the dorsal side
and the other with a completely white dorsal area.
In addition, Fertl et al. (1999) cited two personal
communications of sightings of gray whales with
atypical coloration: the first in Oregon in 1994 and
the second in Laguna Ojo de Liebre in 1996.
The coloration of organisms in nature is a useful
model for studying the genetic mechanisms that
determine the phenotype and is closely related to
Figure 1. Costalito de Sal site observation. The macro location of Laguna Ojo de Liebre on the western coast of the Baja
California Peninsula is shown in the upper left corner. The calf was observed between Points 1 and 2; other points are
indicated as reference.
644 Salinas-Zavala et al.
the predator–prey relationship (Hoekstra, 2006).
In this sense, we believe that the main effects of
a more conspicuous coloration may be the pos-
sibility of an increased vulnerability to predation,
the possibility of abnormal communication and
behavioral patterns between these individuals
and their counterparts, and the possibility of a
decrease in the capacity to retain solar heat. None
of these effects seem to have been manifested for
the organisms recorded, however.
For example, noting that the previous records
of atypically colored whales were all adult whales
D
F
A
C
BE
Figure 2. Costalito de Sal, a gray whale calf (Eschrichtius robustus) of atypical coloration in Laguna Ojo de Liebre, Baja
California Sur, Mexico. (A) Mother and calf anterior dorsal view—note that the mother is a typical gray-colored animal;
(B) calf dorsal view showing large black spots on the anterior right side and a pink-red coloration of the epithelium inside
the blowhole; (C) calf right posterior side showing irregular small black spots; (D) calf left side showing irregular black
spots towards the back; (E) calf right-side detail showing three central medium-sized black spots; and (F) mother and calf
left posterior dorsal view.
645New Record of Atypical Coloration in a Gray Whale Calf
(Goebel & Dahlheim, 1979; Hain &Leatherwood,
1982; Fertl et al., 1999, 2004; CONANP, 2016),
this suggests that at least some atypically colored
whales survive to adulthood and that perhaps their
survival chance could be comparable to that of
individuals of the typical gray color.
Regarding the possible effects on communica-
tion and behavior, based on our observations of
Costalito de Sal, the mother’s recognition of the
calf did not present any abnormal behavior, and
the mother–calf relationship followed the charac-
teristic patterns: they were observed swimming
together, with the mother supporting the calf in its
breathing, and they occupied a protected breeding
area in Laguna Ojo de Liebre. Regarding the heat
retention via solar radiation that is necessary when
the whales inhabit the polar zones, the white color
does not appear to be a disadvantage for these
individuals since recorded hypomelanic individu-
als have reached the adult stage. However, there
is a lack of more detailed research on the survival
rate throughout their entire life cycle.
Considering the information to date, we know
with certainty that at least two gray whale individ-
uals with atypical coloration have been recorded
in Laguna Ojo de Liebre. The first was Galón
de Leche, a female which had reproductive suc-
cess and was observed with her own calf, which
showed the normal coloration of the species. The
other was a calf called Costalito de Sal, the subject
of this note. We hope our work will support future
research that helps to clarify the mechanisms
involved in the heritability of abnormal skin col-
oration in wild populations.
Unfortunately, during the language editing
process of this article, it was published in the
local press that the leucistic whale calf known
as Costalito de Sal had been found dead in an
advanced state of decomposition at the site known
as “Carros Viejos” (Figure 1) in the Ojo de Liebre
lagoon near the mouth of the same lagoon. The
newspaper also indicated that the calf showed evi-
dence of shark attack, recording bites on tongue,
tail, and fins. Despite this being the first record
of a dead leucistic calf, the hypotheses about sur-
vival expectations with respect to organisms of
normal coloration remains practically unchanged
since two whales (calves and adults) on average
die every year from shark predation throughout
their range; and to date, in addition to Costalito
de Sal, another adult whale death from shark pre-
dation was recorded at a nearby beach (Medina,
2017).
Acknowledgments
The authors wish to express our gratitude to
ESSA, particularly to technicians C. Joaquín
Rivera Rodríguez, C. Fabian Castillo Romero,
and C. Antonio Zaragoza Aguilar for their help
and collaboration. AHRJ and MVML had scholar
grants from the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y
Tecnología (CONACyT; National Council for
Science and Technology), Numbers 607854 and
606563, respectively.
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A white California gray whale in the Bering Sea
  • C A Goebel
  • M E Dahlheim
Goebel, C. A., & Dahlheim, M. E. (1979). A white California gray whale in the Bering Sea. Murrelet, 60, 107.