Scientists study whale carcass

April 18, 1992|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

Scientists from the Smithsonian Institution and Maryland officials spent yesterday examining the carcass of a 10-ton humpback whale that washed ashore Thursday along Assateague Island National Seashore south of Ocean City.

Strandings of large whales occur every year or two on beaches in Maryland and Virginia. The scientists were taking advantage of this week's find to examine an intact carcass and learn more about the species, said Jack Kumer, a wildlife biologist with the National Park Service at Assateague.

"They rarely get an opportunity where they have animals coming ashore," Mr. Kumer said. He said scientists were extracting various organs and body parts for later study.

The Smithsonian scientists and others, including Dr. Cindy Driscoll, a veterinarian with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, also were attempting to determine how the 27-foot whale died, Mr. Kumer said.

Scientists believe the whale may have been dead about a week before washing ashore. They say it may be difficult to determine the cause of death.

The scientists were looking for any wounds that may have been caused by a ship striking the whale, a fairly common cause of death among the animals. The whale then will be buried on the north end of the national seashore, where it was found by a ranger on patrol.

In addition, photographs of markings on the young whale's tail, flippers and dorsal fin will be compared with extensive catalogs of photos shot of live humpbacks at sea. Such photos have been used for years by researchers in New England and elsewhere as a way of identifying and tracking individual whales.

Officials at the Virginia Marine Science Museum in Virginia Beach, Va., have compiled photos of 11 humpbacks that have spent the past three winters at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay and off the Atlantic shore. The photos were used to confirm that one of the whales off Virginia, an animal the Virginia officials call "Bull's-Eye," had strayed north in March and spent a number of days around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

"We're not sure if this animal is one of the pod that's been in the Chesapeake," Mr. Kumer said.

Jeri Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Virginia museum, said officials there had asked to review photos of the dead whale, which is thought to be about 3 years old. Mr. Kumer said the photos also would be reviewed by researchers in New England. Many humpbacks spend the summers in the waters off Cape Cod, Mass. The dead humpback also could have been migrating from wintering grounds in the Caribbean.

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