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Scientists find evidence of skin cancer in wild fish


Top: A fish with less than 10% melanoma coverage. Bottom: A fish with approximately 90% coverage (Courtesy: Sweet et al., Newcastle University/Australian Institute of Marine Science)
Top: A fish with less than 10% melanoma coverage. Bottom: A fish with approximately 90% coverage (Courtesy: Sweet et al., Newcastle University/Australian Institute of Marine Science)

Cheryl Santa Maria, staff writer

August 2, 2012 — Researchers have found evidence of melanoma in wild fish inhabiting the Great Barrier Reef -- directly below the world's largest hole in the ozone layer.

Left: A coral trout with healthy tissue  Right: A fish suffering from stage II melanoma (Courtesy: Sweet et al., Newcastle University/Australian Institute of Marine Science)
Left: A coral trout with healthy tissue Right: A fish suffering from stage II melanoma (Courtesy: Sweet et al., Newcastle University/Australian Institute of Marine Science)

For the first time, scientists at Newcastle University and the Australian Institute of Marine Science have discovered cases of skin cancer in wild coral trout.

The disease manifests itself through dark spots and lesions, not unlike the melanoma marks that appear on humans.

The study, conducted between August, 2010 and February, 2012, found that 15% of the 136 fish sampled showed signs of the skin abnormalities, but the actual number of affected fish could be higher.

It's been theorized that the disease may slow down the fish, making them more susceptible to prey.

But so far, scientist aren't sure how the disease is impacting the fish, if at all.

“The individuals we looked at had extensive – but only surface – melanomas,” explains Dr. Michael Sweet, who led the study.

“This means the cancer had not spread any deeper than the skin so apart from the surface lesions the fish were basically healthy."

Further research is needed to pinpoint the exact cause of the cancer, but scientists believe UV radiation is a likely culprit, given that the fish inhabit an area directly below the world's largest hole in the ozone layer.

The cancer has only been found in fish inhabiting the southern portion of the Great Barrier Reef -- but the problem could be more widespread.

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