A 55-foot fin whale washed up on a Massachusetts beach. What killed it?

A dead fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) washed up on a Massachusetts beach on Aug. 20. Credit: New England Aquarium

A finback whale that died near the coast of Massachusetts has unknowingly donated his body to science.

On Monday (Aug. 20), the duxbury Police Department posted on Twitter to ask the public to prevent duxbury Beach, where a 55-foot-long (17 metres) whale carcass resting on the shore. The New England Aquarium marine biologists were quickly on the scene to the necropsy of the whale, according Samples are sent to laboratories across the country, said aquarium spokesman Diana McCloy, but it will still be weeks or months before scientists are learning a bit more about the whale’s cause of death.

There is more to the necropsy than just ascertain why the animal died, however. Finback whales, also known as fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus), are fast, elusive swimmers, said Linda Lory, a senior biologist in the rescue department at the New England Aquarium. [Whale Album: Giants of the Deep]

“They are so fast, and they do not infringe on as a lot of other whales,” She told Live Science. That means that the stranded carcasses are one of the easier ways to the study of the animals’ anatomy and physiology.

Looking for a cause of death

Lori and her colleagues were on the scene Monday duxbury on the Beach. They used heavy equipment and large knives, including some mounted on long poles, to withdraw the whales’ blubber — that was more than 2 inches (5.8 centimeters) thick in some parts and tests of the muscles and organs. During the recording of their findings on water resistant paper, the team also preserved samples for microscopic analysis. They have even delved into the belly of the whale, who did some of undigested food.

“It was feeding on something at some point,” Lory said.

The whale saw old scars from entanglement with fishing lines or nets, the biologists found. That is not very unusual, Lory said. Many of the scars were healed, but an injury to the whale back, or top and side had dug deep into the mud. It is not yet clear whether this old injury had something to do with the whale’s death, Lory said.

Fin whale facts

Fin whales are the second largest whales in the world, after the blue whale, according to the World wildlife Fund; the largest individuals can grow up to 80 feet (24 m) in length. They are threatened with extinction, with between 50,000 and 90,000 left in the wild.

The whales are sometimes called the “greyhounds of the sea” because of their tight frames, the speed by means of the oceans of up to 23 mph (37 km/h), according to the American Cetacean Society. They are found in all but the farthest polar reaches of the oceans of the world and the existence on krill and small fish, it lives alone or in small groups of up to seven persons.

The remains of the whale that washed up on duxbury Beach have already buried. The data of the samples will be reported to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which tracks whale strandings, She said. The tissue will be tested, not only for viruses and bacteria, but also toxins and pollutants which may have contributed to the animal’s death. A unusual findings may indicate larger trends in the total fin whale population, health, Lory said.

“We do this, to get more information about not just that particular whale,” she said, “but also about the whale species as a whole.”

Originally published on Live Science.

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