THE ARTICULATE WHALE (1): TELLING A TALE AFTER DEATH
The ‘false killer whale’ Pseudorca crassidens has a somewhat misleading name: first (as implied), it is not a killer whale; second, it’s not actually a whale at all, but a large species of dolphin. However, it does have some killer whale tendencies – attacking and killing smaller marine mammals for example – and perhaps a passing resemblance, so the species has been given something of an upgrade, name-wise.
Although these fine creatures are distributed widely around the globe, the overall numbers are thought to be small, and relatively little is known about them in the wild. They are, of course, used as aquarium exhibits but the knowledge gleaned in captivity cannot provide much of an overview of their oceanic behaviour, which remains relatively unstudied.
However, there is one source of valuable data – the scientific study of stranded animals. And as it happens, Abaconians will very soon be able to obtain at least a skeleton knowledge of the FKW, the end-product of a long and complicated research project by the BMMRO in conjunction with Friends of the Environment. Just a quick word of warning before you read further – some images below are not especially pleasant to look at, so be prepared for them… They are illustrative and not intended for close inspection (unless you want).
Exactly a year ago an FKW was reported to have stranded on Duck Cay, off Cherokee Sound. BMMRO were quickly on the scene, and hoping to undertake the usual procedure of a necropsy, in which post-mortem samples are taken for analysis. However the poor creature was in an advancing state of decomposition, so only skin samples and photographs could be taken.
Telescoping the intervening months for the sake of brevity, the decision was made to cut up the carcass (note the face-masks) and bury it where it was, so that its integrity would be preserved for later retrieval, cleaning, reconstruction (‘re-articulation’) and exhibition for educational purposes.
In December, the remains were exhumed for the next phase of the animal’s decomposition – submersion in cages in the mangroves – before the final cleaning of the bones in readiness for its re-articulation and display.
Cleaning the bones has been a meticulous process, leaving the resulting skeleton ready to reconstruct in situ at Friends of the Environment’s Kenyon Research Centre in Marsh Harbour. Adult FKWs can grow up to 6 metres long, so there are a great many bones from large to very small to place correctly – and plenty of teeth (see below). The re-articulation is nearly finished, and it is hoped that the completed skeleton will be on display in the very near future. I am planning to see it in about 2 weeks time, and – this sounds quite strange, I know – I’m very excited about it.
This ambitious year-long project has involved BMMRO, FOTE, BEP (Bahamas Environment Protection Foundation), interns, and volunteers. I am keen to know whether, in the modern way, an affectionate name has been chosen for the skeleton. ‘Duck Cay’ doesn’t provide a very promising start. Well, maybe Donald is in vogue…?
ARE STRANDINGS FREQUENT – AND WHY REPORT THEM?
Each year there may be half-a-dozen reports of cetacean strandings in Abaco waters, both whales and dolphins. As far as I can make out, the animals are almost invariably dead. If still alive, reporting is clearly urgent to ensure a quick response and to maximise the creature’s chances of survival. If dead, a carcass can provide scientists with valuable data on the biology and health of marine mammals and, in turn, the health of our marine ecosystems. This includes basic information, such as an animal’s age, its size, the types of prey it consumes, and the occurrence of diseases. Necropsies can provide more detailed information to add to the growing knowledge-base of marine mammal populations.
And a project like this one, with its great educational potential, can in effect enable a stranded marine mammal to tell its story even after death.
Credits: header image, Endless Ocean / wiki; #1 NOAA; all other photos BMMRO or FOTE, with thanks; range map wiki