Last weekend, an enormous fin whale was seen struggling to swim off the coast of the city of Cullera, along Spain’s east coast. The animal was originally thought to be entangled in drifting fishing nets but was later found to have a spinal malformation of unknown origin.
The fin whale, the second largest species of whale after the blue whale, was first brought to the attention of the Spanish Civil Guard and Oceanogràfic València, an oceanarium in València, by a boat skipper who saw the animal experiencing difficulty swimming.
In a Facebook post, the oceanarium explained how they had quickly dispatched a team of rescuers on a Civil Guard patrol boat to aid the whale, who quickly realized that it was not entangled in any nets but had serious deformities to its spine. Unfortunately, as the animal was in the open sea, and also due to its size – around 17 meters (55 feet) and weighing approximately 40 tons – and its malformation, the team were not able to place any remote trackers on it to assess its condition or its location.
After a few hours, the whale moved away from the coast and disappeared into the Mediterranean. However, the team of researchers with Oceanogràfic València have reportedly stated that, given its general condition and issues with swimming, it is likely the whale could appear again along the coast in the coming days. They have encouraged people to be vigilant and to report any sightings.
Fin whales are a species of baleen whale, which means they strain their food from the surrounding water through baleen plates – strong and flexible sieve-like protrusions that are made from keratin, the same substance as our fingernails. This species of whale is found throughout the world’s oceans, and it gets it name from the tell-tale fin on the rear end of its back.
What is scoliosis and how does it affect animals and humans?
Scoliosis is an abnormal lateral curvature to the spine and is most often diagnosed, in humans, during childhood or early adolescence. It has been observed in numerous animal species, from domestic pets to fish, mice, giraffes, and even snakes, but it is only humans who develop it without any obvious underlying cause. Whales are generally not known to develop scoliosis spontaneously; if a specimen has been found to exhibit deformities to its spine, it is because of injury, usually following a ship collision.
In July 2019, a minke whale, another baleen whale that is much smaller than the fin whale, became stranded in the Netherlands, and it displayed clear signs of spinal issues that had been caused by some sort of trauma. The whale provided a rare opportunity for researchers to examine how the animal’s body had contorted to compensate for the injury and to realign its trunk. The team were interested in these compensatory curves and hoped they could provide clues as to the intrinsic mechanisms that govern the alignment of mammal spines.
The researchers found that the compensatory curves on the whale showed strong similarities in 3D configuration with human variations of scoliosis. The findings suggest that perceived shifts in spinal alignment and equilibrium can lead to uniform responses where the animal (or human) compensates for the damage. Humans have unique biomechanics in our spines caused by our center of gravity being located further back than in other animals. The team studying the whale concluded that this biomechanical difference may explain why humans develop scoliosis without obvious causes.