Animals, News, Science

Blue Whale Carcass Will Help Scientific Research

Blue Whale skeleton, Canadian Museum of Nature. Image: D. Gordon E. Robertson
Blue Whale skeleton, Canadian Museum of Nature. Image: D. Gordon E. Robertson

When the carcasses of nine blue whales were spotted in sea ice off the coast of Newfoundland in April, it was an environmental tragedy. Blue whales are endangered all over the world, and only about 240 now live in the western Atlantic Ocean near Canada.

But thanks to a group of scientists from the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), one of the dead whales will play an important role in scientific research and may even help save the species.

There was more sea ice than usual this year off Newfoundland. Experts think the whales were either crushed by heavy ice floes, or got trapped under the ice and drowned because they could not surface to breathe.

Two of the dead whales washed up near small communities, posing a big problem for the people who live there. It can take years for a whale carcass to break down naturally, either rotting away or being eaten by scavengers. (A scavenger is a bird or animal that feeds on decaying animal flesh.) Meanwhile, the smell of the rotting whale carcasses would be unbearable for people living nearby.

But moving a whale carcass is difficult and expensive. The blue whale is the largest animal that ever lived, including most dinosaurs. Adults can be 20 to 25 metres long – about the length of two school buses – and weigh about 60 tonnes.

Fortunately, Mark Engstrom, deputy director of collections and research at the ROM, was very interested in helping to remove one of the carcasses. Because blue whales are an endangered species, scientists don’t get many chances to study them. Only two museums in Canada have a blue whale specimen.

The team from the ROM arrived in Trout River, Newfoundland, on May 7 to dismantle the whale and preserve what they could for science.

First, they used a fishing trawler to tow the carcass down the coast, away from the community. Then it took 12 people about six days to strip off the skin and blubber. They saved tissue samples, parts of organs, and pieces of baleen (the stiff plates that hang down from the upper jaw of the whale and help to filter food out of the water) for scientists to study. Waste material was buried at the Trout River dump.

Some of the samples will be sent to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Researchers there hope to find clues as to why the blue whale population is shrinking. The samples could tell them if there are toxic chemicals in the whales’ environment or problems with their food supply.

The rest of the samples will be frozen and stored at the ROM for use by other scientists. Genetic information from the whale’s DNA will be added to the Canadian Barcode of Life Network, which is creating a database of genetic information for every species in Canada.

The DNA could also show if the whale is related to other whales whose DNA is on file. It may help researchers figure out if blue whales from the western and eastern Atlantic groups mingle, or if they remain separate.

The whale’s skeleton was taken apart and loaded onto two tractor-trailers to be transported to Ontario.

The bones will spend a year packed in soil and manure to help any remaining flesh to decompose. After that, they will be soaked in water for up to two years to remove all the oil from them. (Oil helps prevent the whale’s bones from being crushed when it dives deep in the ocean.)

Dr. Engstrom hopes the skeleton will eventually be put on display as part of a major exhibit on whales.

Related links

One of the ROM”s team members created this excellent blog about the event.

World Wildlife Foundation‘s page about blue whales and conservation efforts.

National Geographic video of blue whales.

An animated video on the evolution of whales.

By Kathleen Tilly

Writing/Discussion Prompt
Since blue whales are endangered, it is very rare for someone to see one in the wild. Even scientists don’t get many chances to study them. These are two of the reasons why museums can be such wonderful teaching tools. Why else are museums important? 

Reading Prompt: Demonstrating Understanding
This article contains a lot of information about blue whales, science and the role of museums. What are the five most interesting pieces of information that you learned from this article?

Demonstrate understanding of a variety of texts by summarizing important ideas and citing supporting details (OME, Reading: 1.4).

Demonstrate understanding of increasingly complex texts by summarizing important ideas and citing a variety of details that support the main idea (OME, Reading: 1.4).

Language Feature: Writing numbers
Several numbers appear in this article. Read through the article and circle them. What do you notice about how they are written? When did the journalist write numbers using words vs. digits?