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Turning a whale inside out


The first thing every marine mammal research scientist needs to remember when slicing into the thick blubber of a whale that’s been dead for some time is to not put your face directly over the incision.

You could get blasted with escaping gas, blubber, blood or all three.

That’s what Dr. Jack Lawson of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans joked about to media when he began a necropsy Thursday morning on a 16-foot True’s beaked whale at the provincial veterinary facility on Brookfield Road in St. John’s.

No one got blasted, but the gas escaping as chunks of blubber were removed carried a stench.

The adult female whale was discovered dead and washed ashore at Point Lance on the southern Avalon Peninsula Feb. 7. The animal provides DFO scientists with a rare opportunity to obtain and share information.

Initially, it was thought to be a Sowerby beaked whale, but after an analysis (X-ray) of the teeth in the jawbone, it was identified as a True’s. It is the first recorded True’s beaked whale in the province.

“There’s little known about beaked whales in general around the world,” Lawson said.

“So the information we get on the size of the animal, the samples we are taking in terms of how thick the blubber is and things like that are useful information that we’ll distribute to other researchers in the world, and it will be sort of a baseline to look at things like changes over time.

“For instance, if we find out that everywhere the blubber is always five centimetres thick and that 20 years from now we find out, perhaps with climate change or something, the blubber goes down to one centimetre then that will tell you there have been changes in the species.”

Media were invited to the event Thursday. Researchers and veterinarians in rubber boots and rubber clothes worked on the whale, discussing various finds such as tapeworms and broken ribs, and collecting blood, tissue and swab samples of various organs.

Lawson, jokingly extending a blood-covered, plastic-gloved hand for a handshake, said before the animal was discovered dead on the beach, it was reportedly seen with a smaller animal.

He said the team found evidence the whale had recently been pregnant and was nursing a calf at the time of its death.

He said it’s sad to know a calf has likely been lost, as well.

“We also found on the top front of the animal there’s a number of ribs that have been broken,” Lawson said.

“And there’s also evidence that she bled after the ribs were broken, suggesting she was alive when she had those ribs broken somehow. It’s usually something that will happen if struck by a boat, so she could have been at the surface and hit by a vessel, broken her ribs and that could be her cause of death.”

Lawson said all the meat and blubber will be removed from the bones and will be discarded.

“The plan is to mount the skeleton at Fisheries and Oceans so people can come and have a look and see what this is,” he said, noting that could take up to a year or more.

“We worked on a number of blue whales last year on the southwest coast, so this is of a different magnitude altogether. But this is the first time I’ve done a beaked whale, so it’s very interesting.”

 

 

You could get blasted with escaping gas, blubber, blood or all three.

That’s what Dr. Jack Lawson of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans joked about to media when he began a necropsy Thursday morning on a 16-foot True’s beaked whale at the provincial veterinary facility on Brookfield Road in St. John’s.

No one got blasted, but the gas escaping as chunks of blubber were removed carried a stench.

The adult female whale was discovered dead and washed ashore at Point Lance on the southern Avalon Peninsula Feb. 7. The animal provides DFO scientists with a rare opportunity to obtain and share information.

Initially, it was thought to be a Sowerby beaked whale, but after an analysis (X-ray) of the teeth in the jawbone, it was identified as a True’s. It is the first recorded True’s beaked whale in the province.

“There’s little known about beaked whales in general around the world,” Lawson said.

“So the information we get on the size of the animal, the samples we are taking in terms of how thick the blubber is and things like that are useful information that we’ll distribute to other researchers in the world, and it will be sort of a baseline to look at things like changes over time.

“For instance, if we find out that everywhere the blubber is always five centimetres thick and that 20 years from now we find out, perhaps with climate change or something, the blubber goes down to one centimetre then that will tell you there have been changes in the species.”

Media were invited to the event Thursday. Researchers and veterinarians in rubber boots and rubber clothes worked on the whale, discussing various finds such as tapeworms and broken ribs, and collecting blood, tissue and swab samples of various organs.

Lawson, jokingly extending a blood-covered, plastic-gloved hand for a handshake, said before the animal was discovered dead on the beach, it was reportedly seen with a smaller animal.

He said the team found evidence the whale had recently been pregnant and was nursing a calf at the time of its death.

He said it’s sad to know a calf has likely been lost, as well.

“We also found on the top front of the animal there’s a number of ribs that have been broken,” Lawson said.

“And there’s also evidence that she bled after the ribs were broken, suggesting she was alive when she had those ribs broken somehow. It’s usually something that will happen if struck by a boat, so she could have been at the surface and hit by a vessel, broken her ribs and that could be her cause of death.”

Lawson said all the meat and blubber will be removed from the bones and will be discarded.

“The plan is to mount the skeleton at Fisheries and Oceans so people can come and have a look and see what this is,” he said, noting that could take up to a year or more.

“We worked on a number of blue whales last year on the southwest coast, so this is of a different magnitude altogether. But this is the first time I’ve done a beaked whale, so it’s very interesting.”

 

 

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