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]