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Don’t blubber, it’s biology

Everyone should watch a whale being dissected – it teaches us about life.

I am standing in the back of a large lorry, my feet submerged in a pool of blood, water and oil. The truck's container is open to a grey Welsh sky, but with high-sided walls to keep the blood and us hidden from view. I shout instructions to Nick, my PhD student, over the wind and rain: "Just climb on to its back and start cutting!" He looks doubtful. Our task lies stinking before us - a nine-metre whale corpse freshly pulled from the Bristol Channel.

Before the concept of "health and safety" was invented, a whale stranding was an important public event. Edward II decreed that whales were the "fishes royal" and that stranded carcasses belonged to the Crown - legislation that still exists today. The carcasses were valuable, and often a popular tourist attraction. The whale might be brought into town squares for the public to see, poke, smell and eat. Whales inspired awe, fascination and greed. They still do, but the fascination is held at bay by poorly informed council workers tasked with the disposal job of their life; and the greed is in the prices quoted by the contractors asked to get rid of the body. A recent sperm whale disposal in Humberside cost the taxpayer over £20,000.

I have been studying what happens to whales when they die a natural death and sink to the sea floor. This has not been easy. Although whales are still relatively numerous, the problem is finding the remains of dead ones. We have used a different tactic - towing a dead stranded whale out to sea, sinking it and returning at a later date to see what has happened.

Some of our findings have been surprising. The first is that the gigantic remains may sit on the seabed for a long time: certainly over five years, and in extreme cases hundreds. The bones form an oil-rich reef that can support several hundred species of specialist scavenging organisms. Our most remarkable discovery has been an entirely new group of worms that live only on whalebones; we've named them Osedax, from the Latin for bone-eating. It appears that these animals evolved simultaneously to whales, some 50 million years ago. We know they are related to the giant worms that live in the chemical-rich fluids of underwater volcanoes, but not how they made the leap to inhabiting whale skeletons. New clues to the origins of deep-sea biodiversity are emerging from these studies.

Identity crisis

As Nick and I start our gruesome task, I feel depressed and powerless. As there is a contractor from an incineration plant waiting to take the whale away, we have decided to remove as many bones as we can fit in our car; we will sink these in deep open sea as part of a future experiment. We do not have the means to arrange for the entire animal to be sunk, or to transport the carcass to the museum. For a wild moment, I think of bringing it back and parking it in the garden at the Natural History Museum where I work. Everybody should have a chance to see it, walk on its back, watch a dissection. That is biology and it can't be done on the internet or with plastic casts.

Even in the Welsh storm, the local boys working on the dockside shout over to us. "Is it a boy or a girl?" I find the penis. "A boy!" I shout. "But not very well endowed!" They laugh, their interest in marine biology awakened.

This is the fourth time I have chopped up a whale. The first was a sperm whale in Hull, the second a minke whale in Kent, the third a fin whale in Sussex. Surprisingly, nobody has been able confidently to identify this one. It looks like a fin or minke to me. I take pictures of various bits and email them from my phone to experts. "Probably a minke," they reply. I do not like the "probably". The first thing a biologist should do is identify an animal correctly. Our data will be useless without a common taxonomic reference. So we take a slice of the least smelly meat for testing. It occurs to me that this huge whale - a local media sensation - is about to be incinerated before anyone knows what it is. A new species? It is not impossible. New species have been determined in recent years through DNA techniques. What data could we be losing here by burning this animal before properly studying it?

Nick climbs carefully on to the back of the whale. The furrows of its belly make convenient handholds and toeholds, but the animal wobbles like a giant jelly as he scrambles up. "Don't worry, the skin is quite tough - you won't fall in," I shout encouragingly, wondering if this is really true. "Have a go at that flipper first, just to warm up." Cutting up a whale is surprisingly easy. The animal has a thick layer of fat - the blubber - which is easily sliced. Removing the bones is less simple, as you need to know where the joints are, like when carving a roast. The flipper is composed of the same bones as our arms - humerus, radius, ulna and a ball-and-socket joint. Nick feels for this with his knife and soon we are able to free it. Removed from the whale, the flipper is enormous, the ball joint itself the size of a football. It slides down the side of the whale, landing with a huge splash in a pool of blood. We whoop with delight.

Outside the lorry, the local news crew is interviewing one of the disposal team: a rescue company more used to dealing with motorway pile-ups. "We had to remove a circus elephant once, but this is our first whale," he enthuses. The reporter, soaked in a mist of whale blood and rainwater, looks to me for a story. "Do you think this is the best way to dispose of it?" he leads. I explain that it is ridiculous to spend thousands removing a dead whale from the sea to dispose of it on land. But I hesitate to criticise the council; almost certainly the staff have no previous experience and get limited guidelines on what to do. It could be argued that as a rep­resentative of the Natural History Museum, which is given first rights to "fishes royal" by the Crown, I should treat it as my job to claim the specimen for the national collection. But my only resources are an enthusiastic PhD student, a Honda Civic and some plastic bags.

Ocean icon

Whales are the poster children for all that is mysterious and unknown about the open sea. To a seaman on the deck of a 1960s Southern Ocean whaler, they were floating barges of oil awaiting harvest. To an environmental activist, they are the icons of a natural world, the animal highest in the pecking order of protection.

These extreme views arise through ignorance of science and bias in observation. While international committees meet yearly to make supposedly informed decisions about whale conservation, this whale sits unidentified on a truck in Cardiff, destined, ironically, for use as biofuel at a local incineration plant.

As we return to the museum with our samples, I rant to Nick about the treatment of these whale remains and our poor knowledge of the oceans. Hiding the animal from view, limiting access and spending thousands incinerating it is no progress for marine science. I yearn for the days when a whale would be brought to town.

Adrian Glover is a researcher at the Natural History Museum in London

Splash of the titans

The fin whale is the second-largest living animal. Its distinctive long, slim body can reach 27 metres in length and 70,000 kilograms in weight, purely on a diet of krill, small schooling fish, squid and crustaceans filtered from the water using baleen plates.

Gregarious creatures, fin whales have been spotted in groups of 300 when migrating and are favourites of National Geographic, as they can leap completely out of the water. They are highly endangered and their numbers have declined during the 20th century - an estimated 750,000 were killed - leaving fewer than 3,000 in the oceans today.

Minke whales are one of the smaller baleen species, reaching nine metres at maturity. They can usually be identified by a white band on each flipper. Minkes were increasingly targeted by hunters as larger species became scarce by the 1970s. There has been a moratorium on hunting since 1986, but Iceland, Japan, Norway and South Korea still kill significant numbers.

After the gargantuan blue, the sperm whale is perhaps the most famous, due to its role as Ahab's nemesis in Melville's Moby-Dick. The largest predators in the world, bulls (males) can grow up to 20 metres long and weigh 57,000 kilograms by feeding on deep-sea cephalopods such as the colossal squid. Though officially seen as vulnerable, the species is thought to be in little danger of extinction: scientists estimate that hundreds of thousands are still living worldwide.

Stephen Morris

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.