In 2014, a mass stranding of blue whales offered an unprecedented opportunity to study the anatomy of the largest creature ever to have lived. Sad as it was to see these magnificent marine mammals wash up on a beach, researchers jumped at the chance to get up close and personal with the endangered animals.
One of the most incredible results to come from the event was the feat of anatomically preserving for the first time ever a complete blue whale heart.
In May 2014, nine blue whales got trapped in ice and died off the coast of the island of Newfoundland, Canada. Two carcasses washed up on the beach in good enough condition for experts from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto to travel to the site and recover their remains, one of which was a 24-meter-long (80-foot-long) fully articulated skeleton, which has been starring in the museum’s exhibition alongside the heart.
This heart, incredibly, stands at 1.8 meters (6 feet) – around the size of a small car – and weighs an impressive 200 kilograms (440 pounds). The colossal creature can grow up to 30 meters (100 feet) in length, so to get the blood moving around its huge body, the heart pumps out around 220 liters (58 gallons) of blood per beat.
To preserve the giant organ was a challenge. "Its size accelerates decomposition, so it's remarkable we got to salvage a heart," Jacqueline Miller, who led the preservation, told Wired.
To begin with, the researchers used around 1,000 gallons of formaldehyde to stop the tissue from decomposing any further. Then they soaked the heart in acetone to remove all the water from its tissue, right down to the cellular level.
Using a technique called plastination, they next placed the heart in a polymer bath, and then put the whole thing in a vacuum so that the acetone would boil away, leaving the heart perfectly preserved.
The organ, which Miller affectionately nicknamed “Frankenheart”, stayed in the vacuum chamber for four months to ensure every last inch was covered. The preserved heart should now last up to 1,000 years.
The heart went on show at the Royal Ontario Museum this year to visitors’ delight. If you missed the display, don't worry! The heart will soon be touring Canada, with dates to be confirmed.