As part of the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP), we are often focused on the death of animal and can overlook the amazing lives of marine creatures before they sadly wash up along our coastlines. British waters are home to over 28 different species of whales, dolphins and porpoises, collectively known as cetaceans.
In the UK, the most numerous (and smallest) of these is the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena). Unsurprisingly, these porpoises therefore make up the majority of strandings in the UK.
Following the stranding of a number of sperm whales on the English coast last weekend, scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Museum visited Lincolnshire from Monday 25 January to conduct autopsies on the dead leviathans.
I interviewed Rebecca Lyal, Cetacean Stranding Support Officer of the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP), to find out what the autopsies have revealed thus far about the cause of death.
Rebecca, how do you go about assessing the cause of death of whales?
That can be done by looking at the recent movement of the whales, where they have come from and what their behaviour has been and then, once we’d deduced that they didn’t strand because they had got caught in a net, or had any wounds that may have made them unable to swim, we can start looking a bit deeper. This is when we started to take samples of the skin, the blubber, reading the blubber thickness, and then muscles and blood.
[Warning: readers may find the images that follow in this post upsetting.]
This week Rebecca Lyal, our Cetacean Strandings Support Officer, reports on one of the latest whale strandings to receive media attention:
The first report I received of the phenomenal sea creature that had stranded in Kent was a post-it note left on my desk saying ‘Humpback whale, Kent’. My phone and inbox then buzzed with updates and enquiries from colleagues and news stations about an 11 metre whale that had washed up on the beach at Botany Bay near Margate. A characterless Wednesday morning had been transformed into a blizzard of curiosity that surrounded the seas’ most recent lost property. But this wasn’t a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), nor was it a minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) as was widely reported; it was in fact a fin whale (B. physalas).
The post mortem summary that was released by Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) partner the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) reported that the whale had damage consistent with a ship strike, due to the parallel linear cuts and a pale appearance to the body that indicated the animal had lost a significant amount of blood from its wounds. But why was there confusion with the identification? Let’s find out…
[Warning: the next image in the post shows the damage to the fin whale’s body]
We take a diversion this week from the Microverse and our newest project, Orchid Observers, to introduce one of the projects that wouldn’t get anywhere without the general public reporting sightings, the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP). Cetaceans are the infraorder of marine mammals that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises, and the Museum has been involved in recording their strandings on UK shores for over a century. So it’s over to Rebecca Lyal, Cetacean Strandings Support Officer at the Museum, to introduce the project and what she does as a part of it.
Warning: You may find some of the images that follow upsetting as they are of stranded and injured animals.
The CSIP was created in 1990 to unite the Museum with a consortium of interested parties to formally investigate the stranding of any cetacean, seal, shark and turtle upon the UK coastline. The Museum has actually been recording strandings since 1913 when the Crown granted it scientific research rights for the collection of data on the ‘fishes royal’.
The first recording was a Cuvier’s beaked whale that stranded in Northern Ireland during the summer of 1913. Since then there have been over 12,000 logged reports of whale, dolphin and porpoise strandings, that have ranged from the mighty blue whale to the common harbour porpoise, and even a rogue beluga whale found in Scotland.