More than a year after a 63-foot female blue whale — the largest animal species on Earth — was sighted floating off the coast of Nova Scotia, Dalhousie University’s Gordon Price, Chris Harvey-Clark, Christopher Nelson and a team of volunteers are working to turn the loss into a learning opportunity.
With the help of a small army of eager volunteers, Price and Nelson of Dalhousie’s Faculty of Agriculture have been working tirelessly to preserve and degrease the bones of the blue whale to create a mounted display for the university.
Not only will the bones act as a public education piece, but the ultimate goal of the project is to develop a better understanding of the pathology of these creatures. The team is looking to better understand the conditions that may have led to the whale's death.
“Volunteers from across the region initially worked on the beach in the South Shore to conduct a necropsy and de-flesh the bones,” said Price. “Co-ordinating with members of the Marine Animal Rescue Society and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the bones were transported to my field research site in Truro, the Bio-Environmental Engineering Centre, for composting.”
Composting the bones
The researchers are composting the whale bones to remove the grease, tissue and oils that are deeply embedded in the whale’s skeletal structure so the bones can then be properly mounted and displayed. In addition to the thorough cleanse, the bones are being weighed, catalogued and archived digitally. The process of composting the whale bones is expected to take anywhere from two to three years.
Typically, this degreasing is done with toxic and harmful solvents that can impact human health through direct exposure or contaminate the environment. Price has developed a mix of feedstock materials to act as an effective biological mechanism to remove a large proportion of grease. In doing this, the compost that is left over can be used to benefit other agricultural practices.
A second specimen
While Price and his team were working to preserve the blue whale bones, another whale carcass was made available to their research. The team received a North American Right Whale carcass as part of an initiative by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The idea is to repeat the process on these bones so they can be used at Moncton’s Science Enterprise Centre.
“We are looking to develop a public education campaign related to the impacts that people have on the ocean environment,” Price explains. “This starts with having students participate in activities of preserving the remains and educating them about the life cycles and conditions of these creatures.”
The three Dalhousie researchers also hope to develop a program to help communities deal with deceased whales.
“We hope to develop a composting protocol for communities where marine animals may wash up on the beaches. This could be part of a process to preserve the remains,” says Dr. Price. “We also look to build displays within these communities as an educational centrepiece and local attraction.”
With so many complex parts, the composting process of whale bones is certainly no small task. The researchers invited high school students from Cobequid Educational Centre’s Biology and Oceans classes to join in the process of removing the bones from the compost and identifying them.
Aaron Elser, a science teacher at CEC, says it’s an amazing example of experiential learning.
“Students had the unique opportunity to build on what they already know about anatomy and get a hands-on lesson that will enrich their minds in a new and engaging way,” says Elser.
He hopes the experience helps promote students’ interest in both biology and research at Dal’s ag campus.
So, while a washed up whale carcass may seem like a heart-wrenching loss to some, the educational opportunity is not lost. Price and his team of volunteers will continue to work diligently to better understand how human activities are impacting these ocean creatures and educate the public to ensure life underwater remains viable for years to come.