Last year, a catastrophe took place off the southeastern coast of Canada. Nine of the already meager Western North Atlantic blue whale population died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, likely the result of ice entrapment preventing them from surfacing for air. While these events are known to occur episodically, representing on ongoing threat to these animals, it’s rare that more than one animal will be involved.
“It was a calamitous event in that the Western North Atlantic population is very small, numbering in the low hundreds, and its recovery is fragile,” mammalogy technician Jacqueline Miller from the Royal Ontario Museum told IFLScience.
When the ice began to break up during the spring, the animals started to drift, and while the circumstances were unfortunate, scientists saw this as a unique opportunity to expand our knowledge of these graceful beasts. Two whales were salvaged, under permit, off the coast of Newfoundland; both were females.
One of the whales was processed at Rocky Harbour, led by Miller and her team alongside collaborators at Research Casting International, which took a full week, many hands and lots of equipment.
“We wanted to take every opportunity to learn from her as well as recover a complete skeleton for eventual exhibit,” said Miller. “This is why we also collected the heart, as well as tissue samples for future molecular study.”
The heart, which BBC’s Sam Hume described to IFLScience as “suitably disgusting and stinky,” was of particular interest to the team.
“People are always curious to know if the heart of a whale is the same as ours structurally, and curious to know its size,” said Miller. “The blue whale represents the most massive animal to have existed in Earth’s history, so its heart should likewise be the largest known.”
While hearts from large animals have been examined before, Miller says this seems to be the first blue whale heart to be anatomically preserved for exhibit and study. The team wanted to explore commonly-held ideas about this organ, like could you actually “swim” in the greater vessels, and have an answer for the question: just how big is it?
Photo by Samantha Phillips/Royal Ontario Museum.
About 1.5 meters (5 feet) across, apparently, which is smaller than anticipated. Having been frozen for almost a year, it wasn’t exactly in pristine condition when Miller’s team began the preparation process, and trying to prepare it in a state closer to its original conformation was apparently particularly challenging, requiring some rather inventive techniques. But I won’t spoil things any more for you; check out the team’s awesome story here: