March 12, 2008

Right whale death last year off Hatteras still a mystery

A preliminary necropsy report on a right whale that was towed to the beach in Avon last March hasn’t solved the mystery of why the animal died.

“In the documents I’ve read, I don’t see anything that jumps out and identifies the cause of death,” said Barb Zoodsma, marine mammal biologist and southeast right whale recovery program coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Fishermen found the young male whale floating about 22 miles northeast of Cape Hatteras on March 30, 2007.  NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Coast Guard towed the whale close to shore and a commercial boat towing company brought it to the beach. 

The whale was described as robust, 25 feet in length, and probably weighing around 10,000 pounds.  Based on the size of the animal, scientists believe it was less than one year old.

“The animal wasn’t emaciated, so this wasn’t a long-term starving situation,” Zoodsma explained.

The report notes that the whale’s vertebrae were not formed correctly.

“But because the vertebrae were closed off, we know there was no neurological dysfunction problem like with spina bifida,” the biologist said, adding that there was no way to know whether the skeletal anomaly resulted in other problems, such as stiff motion. 

The skull and both mandibles were fractured, but scientists haven’t been able to determine whether the fractures occurred before or after death.

Lesions consistent with fishing gear entanglement were observed around the left flipper.

“Healing was occurring, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the animal had overcome the injury,” said Zoodsma.

The animal was in an advanced stage of decomposition, making it impossible for scientists to rule out systemic disease or infection.

Zoodsma said the preliminary report doesn’t contain an estimate of when the whale died.  She noted that whales decompose fairly rapidly, and that she believed death occurred no longer than one week before the whale was discovered.

She said the whale could have been migrating north at the time of its death, but drift analyses would be tricky because the whale was found near the Gulf Stream.

The final report won’t be completed until genetic tests are finished.

“ Right whale genetics is very specialized and done by a lab in Canada and unfortunately we won’t have those tests back for months to a year,” explained Kim Amendola, NOAA Fisheries spokesperson.

Zoodsma said the genetic tests could confirm identification of the whale from aerial photographs.


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