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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

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
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:
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
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,
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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Full-text available
Information is scarce on gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) anatomy and that of mysticetes in general. Dissection of the head of a neonatal gray whale revealed novel anatomical details of the eye, blowhole, incisive papilla with associated nasopalatine ducts, sensory hairs, and throat grooves. Compared to a similar sized right whale calf, the gray whale eyeball is nearly twice as long. The nasal cartilages of the gray whale, located between the blowholes, differ from the bowhead in having accessory cartilages. A small, fleshy incisive papilla bordered by two blind nasopalatine pits near the palate's rostral tip, previously undescribed in gray whales, may be associated with the vomeronasal organ, although histological evidence is needed for definitive identification. Less well known among mysticetes are the numerous elongated, stiff sensory hairs (vibrissae) observed on the gray whale rostrum from the ventral tip to the blowhole and on the mandible. These hairs are concentrated on the chin, and those on the lower jaw are arranged in a V-shaped pattern. We confirm the presence of two primary, anteriorly converging throat grooves, confined to the throat region similar to those of ziphiid and physeteroid odontocetes. A third, shorter groove occurs lateral to the left primary groove. The throat grooves in the gray whale have been implicated in gular expansion during suction feeding. Anat Rec, 2015. © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Full-text available
The study of pigmentation has played an important role in the intersection of evolution, genetics, and developmental biology. Pigmentation's utility as a visible phenotypic marker has resulted in over 100 years of intense study of coat color mutations in laboratory mice, thereby creating an impressive list of candidate genes and an understanding of the developmental mechanisms responsible for the phenotypic effects. Variation in color and pigment patterning has also served as the focus of many classic studies of naturally occurring phenotypic variation in a wide variety of vertebrates, providing some of the most compelling cases for parallel and convergent evolution. Thus, the pigmentation model system holds much promise for understanding the nature of adaptation by linking genetic changes to variation in fitness-related traits. Here, I first discuss the historical role of pigmentation in genetics, development and evolutionary biology. I then discuss recent empirically based studies in vertebrates, which rely on these historical foundations to make connections between genotype and phenotype for ecologically important pigmentation traits. These studies provide insight into the evolutionary process by uncovering the genetic basis of adaptive traits and addressing such long-standing questions in evolutionary biology as (1) are adaptive changes predominantly caused by mutations in regulatory regions or coding regions? (2) is adaptation driven by the fixation of dominant mutations? and (3) to what extent are parallel phenotypic changes caused by similar genetic changes? It is clear that coloration has much to teach us about the molecular basis of organismal diversity, adaptation and the evolutionary process.
The gray whale (. Eschrichtius robustus) is the only living species in the family Eschrichtiidae. It is a slow-moving sturdy mysticete, slimmer than right whales and stockier than most rorquals. It attains a maximum length of 15.3 m (50 ft) and its skin is mottled light to dark gray with whitish blotches and heavily infested with barnacles and cyamids, or " whale lice, " especially on the head. Instead of a dorsal fin, the back has a hump followed by a series of fleshy knobs, or " knuckles" along the tailstock. The behavioral ecology of the gray whale is unique among mysticetes, as it is the most coastal; makes the longest migration; calves in warm bays, lagoons, and coastal areas; and is an intermittent suction feeder that regularly forages on benthos, apart from feeding opportunistically on plankton and nekton by gulping and skimming. Once found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, the gray whale became extinct in the Atlantic and now is a relict species confined to the productive neritic and estuarine waters of the North Pacific Ocean and adjacent waters of the Arctic Ocean. The eastern population (also called the American , California , or Chukchi stock) occurs in the eastern North Pacific and Amerasian Arctic Oceans, whereas the remnant western population (also called the Asian , Korean , or Okhotsk stock ) occurs in the western North Pacific (off Asia). The western gray whale is now a remnant population close to extinction that occurs off Russia, Japan, Korea, and China and is one of the most critically endangered populations of whales.
The nasal region of the skull has undergone dramatic changes during the course of cetacean evolution. In particular, mysticetes (baleen whales) conserve the nasal mammalian pattern associated with the secondary function of olfaction, and lack the sound-producing specializations present in odontocetes (toothed whales, dolphins and porpoises). To improve our understanding of the morphology of the nasal region of mysticetes, we investigate the nasal anatomy, osteology and myology of the southern right whale, Eubalaena australis, and make comparisons with other mysticetes. In E. australis external deflection surfaces around the blowholes appear to divert water off the head, and differ in appearance from those observed in balaenopterids, eschrichtiids and cetotherids. In E. australis the blowholes are placed above hypertrophied nasal soft tissues formed by fat and nasal muscles, a pattern also observed in balaenopterids (rorqual mysticetes) and a cetotherid (pygmy right whale, Caperea marginata). Blowhole movements are due to the action of five nasofacial muscles: dilator naris superficialis, dilator naris profundus, depressor alae nasi, constrictor naris, and retractor alae nasi. The dilator naris profundus found in E. australis has not been previously reported in balaenopterids. The other nasofacial muscles have a similar arrangement in balaenopterids, with minor differences. A novel structure, not reported previously in any mysticete, is the presence of a vascular tissue (rete mirabile) covering the lower nasal passage. This vascular tissue could play a role in warming inspired air, or may engorge to accommodate loss of respiratory space volume due to gas compression from increased pressure during diving.
Marine Protected Areas for Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises is a key conservation tool and a springboard for worldwide change in human attitudes towards the world's oceans. This completely revised and expanded second edition features new development in the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Pacific as well as future directions for high seas protection. New sections show how to design and manage MPAs in an ever-noisier ocean that is subject to climate change, increased shipping and oil exploration. The process of protected area creation for cetaceans has been accelerated and more than 700 MPAs are detailed in this volume. This book provides a route map for marine mammal researchers, MPA managers, as well as countries, to meet the ambitious targets for highly protected MPA networks by 2020.
1. In response to conservation and management concerns about gray whale Eschrichtius robustus population and stock structure, we provide an overview of the life history and ecology of gray whales as a context for discussion of population and stock structure within the species. Historically eastern and western North Pacific gray whales were managed sepa-rately because: (i) their ranges do not overlap; (ii) genetic analyses indicate that the two populations are significantly different; and (iii) eastern gray whales have increased in abun-dance over the past century while western gray whales have not. 2. Here, we review gray whale migration timing and segregation, feeding and prey species, and reproduction and reproductive behaviour. For the eastern and western gray whale, we review their distribution, history of exploitation, abundance and current status, although most of what is known is founded on the better studied eastern gray whale and only implied for the lesser known western gray whale. Methods to investigate population and stock identity are reviewed including genetics, morphology, chemical signatures, carbon isotopes, parasites, photographic identification and trends in abundance. 3. While the evidence indicates that there is at least some degree of mixing within each of the gray whale populations, no stocks or sub-stocks can be defined. Population structure is not evident in nuclear data, and because selection occurs primarily on the nuclear genome, it is unlikely that there is structuring within each population that could result in evolutionary differences. For western gray whales, there are insufficient data to assess the plausibility of stock structure within the population, owing to its extremely depleted state. Research on eastern gray whales has focused mostly on documenting changes in abundance, feeding biology and behaviour, and suggests separate breeding groups to be unlikely. Both males and females are promiscuous breeders lending little opportunity for the nuclear genome to be anything other than well mixed as is suggested by the high haplotypic diversity of the eastern population. 4. The available data strongly indicate that western gray whales represent a population geographically isolated from eastern gray whales and therefore that the western and eastern populations should be treated as separate management units.
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.