The most convenient place for a dead whale to wash up is somewhere that can be reached with large construction equipment. But when a 12-year-old right whale died in 2005, gruesomely tangled in fishing rope, she came ashore on a remote part of a barrier island off the Virginia coast. The necropsy team had to take a boat out then hike to the carcass. They couldn’t carry much back with them for analysis, so the team’s leader, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute biologist Michael Moore, used a knife to cut off the largest baleen plate he could. Then he lugged the seven-foot-long plate by hand back across the island.

Baleen plates often fall out soon after a whale dies and are lost, so this one “was a very major get,” says Nadine Lysiak, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. She was Moore’s graduate student at the time he brought back the rare find, so she had the opportunity to study it. In the years since then, she has made the most of the endangered whale’s death by turning that tissue into a forensic tool. She’s learned more about the events leading up to the animal’s demise, and worked toward developing a method that can someday reveal the sometimes mysterious circumstances that kill other whales.

Baleen is sort of like teeth: It grows down from the upper jaws of certain whale species, and its fringes filter the whales’ tiny food from the ocean water. But in other ways, baleen is more like hair or fingernails: It grows continuously throughout a whale’s life, and is made of keratin. As new baleen emerges, the oldest baleen wears away. In this way, the molecules in a whale’s baleen become a record of what was happening in its body.

Lysiak drilled a dotted line of samples down the length of the baleen plate from the 12-year-old whale’s necropsy. These samples represented the last eight years of the animal’s life. Researchers already knew a lot about what had happened during those years. There are few enough North Atlantic right whales alive—about 450—that scientists track all of them individually. Lysiak’s whale was called 2301. She was born in 1993 and gave birth in 2002. Researchers saw her throughout 2003 swimming with her calf. In September 2004, she was spotted near Nova Scotia dragging a mass of fishing rope. Along with boat strikes, this kind …read more

Source:: The Atlantic – Best of


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A Forensic Trick to Find Out What’s Killing Whales

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