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22 October 2009

Don’t blubber, it’s biology

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

By Adrian Glover

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.

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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

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