SRUC Experts Help Investigate One of Europe’s Largest Sperm Whale Strandings

Published Wednesday, 27th January 2016 in Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme news

Sperm whale mass stranding

Experts from SRUC’s Scottish Marine Stranding Scheme (SMASS) were called upon when 12 whales were stranded on the Wadden Islands off the coast of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark.

SMASS veterinary specialists, coordinated by Dr Andrew Brownlow, joined Dutch and Belgian teams, spending several days supporting the Dutch led investigation into the largest mass stranding ever seen of sperm whales in the eastern North Sea region.

They carried out post-mortems and investigations on most of the stranded animals, with Lonneke IJsseldijk from the University of Utrecht (Faculty of Veterinary medicine), leading the investigation of the six animals stranded in Dutch waters.

Commenting on this exceptional event Dr Brownlow said: “This is the first sperm whale stranding that has been investigated in any detail and pulling together a team to carry out the post mortems has been a huge logistical undertaking for IJsseldijk.”

“Experts were called upon from across Europe so we were able to post mortem five out of six animals within 48 hours. This enabled an unprecedented amount of detail to be gained which, in turn, helps our understanding of the processes involved in their demise.

Andrew explained why its important to carry out post mortems quickly: “Sperm whale are perhaps the most difficult of all marine species to examine, given their size, tough, fibrous blubber and the short time before they start to decompose meaning you actually run the risk of exploding the carcase. Each animal probably weighed about 20,000kg and this requires heavy lifting machinery to even begin to examine the internal organs.”

A proper investigation of this number of animals required significant experienced manpower deployed very quickly which was the reason SMASS were asked to help.

The final results are pending and will be released in time, however researchers have already been able to rule out many potential causes for the stranding. The animals were in good body condition but in the process of stranding became crushed under their own weight, which sadly led to their death. Samples were taken for analyses of their diet, life history and contaminant burden which will also helps understanding of what may have happened to these whales.

For Andrew Brownlow the period proved particularly busy as, following the North Sea incident, he was contacted by a range of media outlets seeking his view on most recent strandings on the Lincolnshire coast.

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