SCU researchers obtained sloughed skin samples of Migaloo earlier this week as he passed Ballina, Northern NSW, on his return journey to the Antarctic. The DNA samples were then tested by PhD student Megan Anderson who has found Migaloo and his travelling companion were both males.
SCU Whale Research Centre director Associate Professor Peter Harrison said he believed this was the first time genetic samples from an albino whale or dolphin had been collected anywhere in the world.
“It was always assumed that Migaloo was a male, but we had not been able to confirm that until now,” Professor Harrison said.
“From the skin samples we will also be able to see how he is related to the rest of the humpback population and whether he is a true albino, but that will take some months.”
Dan Burns, a PhD student at SCU’s Whale Research Centre, collected the sloughed skin samples that were left floating on the sea surface after the whales had passed. He is currently conducting an ongoing study of humpback whales off Ballina as they head south to the Antarctic.
“The white whale swam past the research area with another whale and we were able to collect the skin samples from both whales after they had breached,” Mr Burns said.
He was also able to obtain a number of photographs of Migaloo’s fluke and of him breaching, which will be added to a photographic database of the humpback population.
Migaloo has sparked intense interest during his northern and southern migrations along Australia’s East Coast. He was first recorded off Byron Bay in 1991 by the Australian Whale Conservation Society and has been seen on and off since then. He has also been reported in Hervey Bay in 1992, 1993 and 1998 by SCU researchers Wally and Trish Franklin.
Professor Harrison said Migaloo was about 13-metres long and thought to be about 17-years-old. He is the only all-white humpback whale known in the world.
Migaloo has been seen in the company of a mother and calf and has been heard ‘singing’, a trait only displayed by male humpbacks.
Megan Anderson, who tested the sloughed skin samples, said she would now compare Migaloo’s DNA sample with samples from other whales collected during the northern and southern migrations.
“We can look at how Migaloo is related to any of the 1500 samples we already have. We will also be looking at the sample to determine what sort of albino Migaloo is, because there’s not just one type of albinism, it can be caused by different genes. It’s going to be a long and complex process to test for albinism in this humpback whale as it has not ever been done before, ” Ms Anderson said.
SCU’s Whale Research Centre southern migration research is supported by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), a global organisation with an office in Sydney and a strong presence in whale conservation in the South Pacific region.
Funds for SCU’s Whale Research Centre are also raised through the sale of “A Whale’s Song” book, which traces the history of humpback whales and the Eastern Australia whaling industry. For information about the book visit the website www.scu.edu.au/whales.
Media contact: Brigid Veale, SCU Media Liaison, 66593006 or m. 0439 680 748.