CWHC-Atlantic Performs Blue Whale Necropsy
A Blue Whale was found dead, afloat near Port-aux-Basques, Newfoundland on March 17, 2017. On May 2nd, it washed ashore in East Berlin near Liverpool, Nova Scotia. The newest member of CWHC-Atlantic , Wildlife Pathologist Dr. Laura Bourque, could not have imagined a larger project for her first week on the job. Accompanying Dr. Bourque were CWHC-Atlantic Director and wildlife pathologist, Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust, veterinary students from the Atlantic Veterinary College, UPEI, Andrew Reid and Tonya Wimmer from the Marine Animal Rescue Society, Dr. Chris Harvey-Clarke from Dalhousie University and many keen volunteers. The goals of the necropsy included collecting biological samples, skeletal remains and determining the cause of death.
The necropsy was performed over three full days which involved very labour intensive work. The blue whale was estimated to be 60 feet long and weigh 50-60 tons. Accessing and removing the skeleton which is hidden under pounds of heavy muscle, thick tendons and connective tissue and an even thicker layer of blubber is no easy feat. The carcass decomposing over months, left most tissues in a poor state yet others looked surprisingly fresh. Perhaps the frigid Gulf of Saint Lawrence served as a giant cooler? Given the carcass’ state, it was difficult to conclude the cause of death. One remarkable finding appeared to be a hematoma (swelling of clotted blood within the tissues) over multiple vertebrae, suspicious of a traumatic event such as a boat collision.
On my first week of the summer working with the CWHC, the opportunity to use my veterinary school knowledge on the largest mammal in the world, made the experience all the more rewarding. Whenever a tragedy occurs to a species at risk, it is our duty to take their death and use it as a learning opportunity. We can only hope to use that information in advancing our efforts in conservation and protection of at risk species.
Article submitted by Briar Spinney, Summer Student, CWHC Atlantic (AVC DVM student class of 2019)
Photo Credits: Photos 1-3 provided by William McDonald, photo 4 provided by Briar Spinney.
Check out some of our prior blog articles about CWHC involvement with other whale projects: