People aren't the only animals susceptible to the nasty effects of too much ultraviolet light. According to new research published in the journal PLoS One, scientists in Australia have discovered that 15 percent of the trout swimming in the Great Barrier Reef have a visible form of skin cancer, likely from soaking in too much of the sun's harmful rays. Here's what you should know about the unnerving discovery:
What's happening to the fish?
A team of British-Australian researchers studied the Great Barrier Reef's sharks by surveying their prey, including trout. In their analysis they kept noticing "strange dark patches" on the bodies of the bright orange fish, says Jon Bardin at The Los Angeles Times. At first they thought the lesions were the result of some sort of infection, but after observing the trouts' tissue under a microscope, they found the fish had developed melanoma, or "the most dangerous type of skin cancer." The splotchy lesions are nearly identical to the kind you'd see normally see on humans with skin cancer, and they range from small isolated marks to large ones covering nearly the entire bodies of some of the trout.
Why in Australia?
The continent sits squarely underneath the Earth's biggest hole in the ozone layer. In Australia, 2 in 3 residents will be diagnosed with skin cancer before age 70 — the highest cancer rate in the world. The trouts' susceptibility could also have something to do with a gene mutation that makes them more likely to develop tumors.
Are the fish safe to eat?
Scientists aren't sure. "We can't say that it is 100 percent safe to eat," says study co-author Michael Sweet. "It's likely to be alright, but we really need to look further into it." Even more concerning: Locals say they've been seeing these infected fish for some time. "They tell me they've seen this since back in the 1980s," says study co-author Michelle Heupel. The next step is to look at a much larger sample of the population to determine the exact extent of the disease.