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.
The Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) was recently called out to the stranding of a harbour porpoise, Phocoena phocoena, in Westward Ho! in north Devon. The porpoise was a suitable candidate to collect for post-mortem, and so plans were made for the strandings team to travel to pick it up.
As part of the trip to Westward Ho!, a ranger from Northam Burrows Country Park asked if the Museum was able to provide an identification on three whale vertebrae they had, to allow them to display the bones in their visitors centre. Little did anyone know the full story behind the vertebrae was about to be uncovered!
A recent stranding gained media attention last week as a Risso’s dolphin (Grampus griseus) washed up on a beach in Norfolk. The Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) receives around 10 reports of Risso’s dolphins stranding every year, but most of these reports are concentrated in Scotland and the west coast of the UK. This unusual stranding in the southern North Sea meant it was crucial for the CSIP team to retrieve this animal for post-mortem. Post-mortems are essential for us to understand how the animal died, and the possible series of events which may have contributed or occurred leading up to its death.
WARNING: This blog contains photographs of dead stranded cetaceans and post-mortem findings which you may find upsetting
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.]
The stunning 25 metre long skeleton of a blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) currently suspended in the Museum’s Mammals and blue whale gallery since 1934 is to be taken down in January 2016. After an extensive period of cleaning and conservation it will then be re-suspended from the ceiling of the Hintze Hall in the summer of 2017.
Following months of careful consideration the blue whale skeleton has been chosen to take centre stage at the Museum, to give an immediate introduction that illustrates our research into the rich biodiversity of life on Earth and a sustainable future, as well as the origins and evolution of that life.
Moving a blue whale around is quite literally an enormous project which involves many specialists including curators, project managers, scaffolders, structural engineers, specimen handlers, and mount makers, to name but a few. Central to this project are the conservators who will be ensuring the skeleton is given the due care and attention it needs.
So exactly how do you work on a large specimen suspended over 6 metres above the ground with many other specimens and models surrounding it? That’s the story we aim to tell in our upcoming posts in our new Conservators blog.