SRUC and the Sperm Whale

Published Wednesday, 15th January 2014 in SAC Consulting news

Stranded sperm whale Joppa

Time and tide wait for no man and in the case of Inverness based SRUC vet Andrew Brownlow the New Year tide at Joppa washed up a dead 26 tonne sperm whale.

Andrew heads up the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme, and the SMASS team went in to investigate why the creature had died and hopefully explain its presence in the Forth.

The whale was a sub-adult male and about two thirds full adult size. Nevertheless it was 14 metres long so, as beach disposal was not an option, it was decided to tow it to Burntisland deep water port where it could be recovered for further investigation.

“There had been reports that the whale had been injured, possibly by a boat, but we found no evidence of that, ” says Andrew. “We have taken various samples which we can use to piece together what happened. However it looks as though our casualty was one more of the many that have been recorded over the centuries; sperm whales lured into the North Sea chasing food and then getting disoriented in the relatively shallow waters off the east coast.”

Male sperm whales tend to travel together in pods for much of the year and follow the squid they feed on into northern, sub-arctic waters, especially the deep water off the Norwegian coast. It is possible this one came a bit too far south, and as the sea became shallower and the food scarcer, it tried to head west, aiming for the familiar waters of the Atlantic continental shelf. Unfortunately it found Scotland in the way, and the coastline funnelled it into the Firth of Forth where it live-stranded.

“We hope our analysis of the prey species of squid the whale fed on, together with other results, will help us explain how this deep water species ended up there it did,” says Andrew. “We should be able to establish how healthy the animal was prior to stranding and gain some more useful insights into the biology and feeding ecology of these creatures.”

The Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme has been in operation since 1992. It is funded by the Scottish and Westminster governments to monitor and collate marine animal stranding data, with the aim of assessing the health of, and threats to, Scotland’s marine animal species. Investigation of a stranded animal can yield substantial information about the health of the individual and the population as a whole. This project is part of the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP), a consortium of partner organisations providing UK wide monitoring of marine animals.

The Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme is based at the SAC Disease Surveillance Centre, Drummondhill, Inverness, IV2 4JZ (01463 243030).

For further information and updates, visit the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme homepage.

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