(Image copyright 2002 Andreas Tille. Used with permission under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License)

In the early spring of 2014, nine blue whales were crushed to death by heavy sea ice off the coast of western Newfoundland and Labrador. When two of them washed up on beaches near Gros Morne National Park, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, media from around the world took notice.

As soon as the deaths of these endangered animals were reported, officials from the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto began making plans to acquire the remains. “So,” you may ask, “what’s so important about dead whales that folks from the ROM would spend days cutting and chopping into little bits stinking, rotting blubber and then spend a ton of cash shipping the bones and samples all the way to Toronto?” Good question!

Did You Know?
A blue whale tongue weighs more than an elephant.

Well, even though they are the largest mammals on Earth, and are an endangered species, very little is known about blue whales. Scientists will study the remains of these whales to try to learn more about them. Samples of various tissues and organs were flash-frozen by placing them in cryogenic tubes which were stored in liquid nitrogen. These samples were then shipped to the ROM and will be shared with other researchers around the world. Having the skeleton and tissue samples will also provide future scientists with the opportunity to answer questions we have not as yet even thought of.

What specific information will be collected?

As discussed in another article, the whales found in Newfoundland and Labrador waters are from a population that has had a lot of difficulty reproducing. Research on other whale species has shown the presence of many toxic substances in their bodies (e.g., PCBs, mercury and DDT). Toxic materials affect whales’ health and may interfere with reproduction. The tissues of these blue whales will be tested for toxins. If high levels of toxic materials are found, scientists will try to learn where it is coming from. If the levels are low, scientists will look for other reasons why these animals are not reproducing well.

Did You Know?
Toxic materials become more heavily concentrated in organisms as you move from lower to higher levels in a food chain. This is known as bioaccumulation or bioamplification.

The blue whale is a type of baleen whale. Baleen is a filter-feeding system found inside the mouths of certain whales. When a whale opens its mouth underwater it takes in water. As the whale pushes the water out, animals such as krill are filtered by the baleen and remain as a food source for the whale. As baleen is made, it stores information about the animal’s diet because atoms from the food source are incorporated into the keratin as it forms. As many atoms have different stable isotopes, the type and amount of an isotope present might show that the krill supply has changed over time, or that there are other problems in the ecosystem. Isotope patterns in different food stocks would indicate if the whale fed in that area. Using this information, scientists can determine the whales’ migration patterns.

Did You Know?
: A whale’s baleen is made of keratin, a fibrous protein such as is found in our fingernails.

Other parts of the whale can supply information specific to the individual being studied. For example, the colour of the eye lens (the lenses darken with age) and the number of layers of ear wax can indicate the age of the whale being studied. Since blue whales produce a layer of ear wax about every six months, every two layers represents one year of life. The ear wax can also provide information about the types of toxins to which the whale has been exposed. The wax will also contain traces of hormones produced by the whale. This can provide insights into things that happened during its lifetime. For example, consistently high levels of cortisol over years would indicate the animal was exposed to stressful situations. Scars on the ovaries would show whether a female whale had given birth.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things to be learned from the whale carcass is related to its genetic makeup. The blue whale’s genome (the complete set of DNA information of an organism) has never been determined before and this could provide information about the evolutionary path of the species as well as the health of the population. Scientists already have DNA from a few blue whales on file. It would be interesting to learn if these whales are related. This would tell scientists if the two populations in the Atlantic are actually distinct or if they intermingle. Also, the Canadian Barcode of Life Network will get a blue whale genome to add to the database of genetic information of the different species found in Canada.

Did You Know?
As of 2014, only two museums in Canada have a complete blue whale skeleton on display: the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at the University of British Columbia and the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.

Since skeletons of blue whales are very rare, the ROM will be able to use the skeleton to teach about whale conservation as well as whale evolutionary history. This will help raise understanding and support for the protection of this species. The involvement of personnel from the ROM shows that the ROM is more than just a place to store cultural information. The ROM is a huge research institution and the scientists working there contribute widely to our understanding of the world. This is true of many large museums in Canada. Next time you visit a museum, ask about the diverse careers represented there.

References

The Blue Whale Recovery (PDF)

Bones, backhoes and bad smells: ROM begins recovery of Newfoundland’s whale carcasses

Why a dead blue whale is so important to science

How carving up Newfoundland’s dead whales is helping science

Canadian Barcode of Life Network

Determining geographic patterns of migration and dispersal using stable isotopes in keratins

NOAA Office of Protected Resources

Giant Gob of Earwax Reveals Blue Whale Secrets

The Encyclopedia of Earth – Blue Whale

craigwhite

I am a former junior and senior high school biology and chemistry teacher and science curriculum consultant. I have always been interested in science, particularly biology and ecology. As a child I was always asking “why?”, taking things apart to see how they worked (sometimes getting them back together), and exploring my local environment. I teach undergraduate science education courses where one of my academic interests is how we address the Nature of Science in classrooms to ensure students develop a true understanding of what science “is”, and the role science plays in our lives.  



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