Whales: Uncovering a Long Lost Secret of Scoliosis

Ayesha Azeem ‘23

Figure 1. Scoliosis is relatively rare in whales and often only develops after serious trauma, such as ship collisions. 

Scoliosis is a deformity of the spine and trunk, and is often caused by traumatic injury, syndromic conditions, or neuromuscular disease. In mammals, the development of scoliosis with no underlying cause, idiopathic scoliosis, is only seen in humans. While the most common form of scoliosis is idiopathic, not enough is known about its origins and why scoliosis can be induced relatively easily without any obvious trauma in humans in comparison to other species. Recent research has indicated that regardless of the cause, human scoliosis has a relatively universal three-dimensional anatomy. However, little is known about the nuances of the compensatory mechanism of the spine, which is the way the body makes up for the spine deformity. Researchers in the Netherlands, in a study led by Stever de Reuver, were able to study the rare occurrence of scoliosis in the Balaenoptera acutorostrata whale in order to compare its compensatory mechanism to that of humans. Even though the whale scoliosis was likely trauma-based, the researchers hoped to study whether these compensatory curves would be similar to what is usually observed in human idiopathic scoliosis, despite the different origins. 

The young whale that was studied had obvious spine trauma, which initiated a compensatory mechanism that resulted in 3D curves in areas of the spine that were not affected. This indicated that the animal attempted to realign its own trunk. Reuver and his colleagues, through their unique opportunity to study the mechanism of scoliosis in the whale, found that the illness is a rather uniform compensatory mechanism that develops regardless of cause or species. Instead of a difference in anatomy, the researchers discovered that the crucial difference between humans and whales was in the way the animal carries their center of gravity. This implies that because humans carry their center of mass posteriorly than any other species, much less trauma is needed to induce scoliosis, providing an explanation for the common development of idiopathic scoliosis instead of other forms. While more information is still needed to establish the connection of scoliosis across different mammals, the discovery of the rare minke whale’s spine trauma has certainly provided a head start. 

Works Cited:

[1] S. Reuver, et. al., What a stranded whale with scoliosis can teach us about human idiopathic scoliosis. Scientific Reports 11, 7218 (2021). doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-86709-x.

[2] Image retrieved from: https://cdn.mos.cms.futurecdn.net/spSQRea8jM2XBBhkpjK2kE-320-80.jpg

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