Melanin granules melanophages and a fully-melanized epidermis are common traits of odontocete and mysticete cetaceans

Blanca Morales-Guerrero, Cecilia Barragán-Vargas, German R. Silva-Rosales, Christian D. Ortega-Ortiz, Diane Gendron, Laura M. Martinez-Levasseur, Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse

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© 2016 ESVD and ACVD Background: The cellular mechanisms used to counteract or limit damage caused by exposure of marine vertebrates to solar ultraviolet (UV) radiation are poorly understood. Cetaceans are vulnerable because they lack protective skin appendages and are obliged to surface continuously to breathe, thus being exposed repeatedly to UV light. Although molecular mechanisms of photoprotection of cetaceans have been studied, there is limited knowledge about their epidermal structure and photoprotective effectors. Objective: To describe and compare the epidermis of mysticete and odontocete cetaceans and identify potentially photoprotective traits. Animals: Twenty eight free-living individuals belonging to six cetacean species were sampled in the Mexican Central Pacific and Gulf of California. Species sampled were the bottlenose dolphin, pantropical spotted dolphin, spinner dolphin, Bryde's whale, fin whale and humpback whale. Methods: Histological and cytological evaluation of skin biopsy tissue collected in the field between 2014 and 2016. Results: All cetaceans had only three epidermal layers, lacking both the stratum granulosum and stratum lucidum. A relatively thick stratum corneum with a parakeratosis-like morphology was noted. Melanin was observed within keratinocytes in all epidermal layers, including the stratum corneum and apical melanin granules obscured the keratinocyte nucleus. Keratinocytes had a perinuclear halo. Keratinocyte diameter differed between cetacean suborders and amongst species. Melanophage clusters were common in most cetacean species. Conclusions: The widespread presence of melanin and the unexpectedly high number of melanophages may constitute a unique photoprotective trait of cetaceans and could reflect primitive adaptations to their environment and to their obligate marine-bound life.
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)213-e50
Number of pages0
JournalVeterinary Dermatology
StatePublished - 1 Apr 2017
Externally publishedYes


Cite this

Morales-Guerrero, B., Barragán-Vargas, C., Silva-Rosales, G. R., Ortega-Ortiz, C. D., Gendron, D., Martinez-Levasseur, L. M., & Acevedo-Whitehouse, K. (2017). Melanin granules melanophages and a fully-melanized epidermis are common traits of odontocete and mysticete cetaceans. Veterinary Dermatology, 213-e50.