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November 16, 2006

Skeletal Remains of Recovered Whale to Find Home at Burke Museum

Researchers to use novel methods to prepare bones

Seattle -- The Burke Museum is teaming with University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs to study and preserve the remains of a whale carcass discovered floating near Everett, Washington, on Nov. 8, 2006. The 54-foot male fin whale will find a home at the Burke Museum, where its skeletal remains will be added to the mammalogy research collection and prepared for public display.

A crew of scientists from Cascadia Research examined the whale in Everett waters on Nov. 9 and secured it for transfer. It had already been dead for a week or more, and the rescue team obtained tissues from the carcass for chemical analysis. According to the researchers, led by John Calambokidis, the whale’s head had been entangled in a rope for some time, its body was emaciated, indicating that it had not been feeding, and body marks indicated it was recently struck by a ship, which may have killed it.

Earlier this week, the recovered whale was towed by a University of Washington research vessel to the San Juan Islands. A research group, led by David Duggins of the UW Friday Harbor Labs, will sink the carcass within the next few days to a depth of about 100 feet, so that it can eventually be retrieved by the Burke Museum.

This is the first Burke whale specimen to be obtained by such means, applying this novel method of using an ecological study of natural decomposition and nutrient recycling to prepare skeletal remains, according to Curator of Mammals Jim Kenagy. The Burke’s existing collection of whales has come from fatally stranded individuals, which were prepared for the museum’s research collection through traditional methods of scraping, cooking, and cleaning.

For the next two to three years, the UW Friday Harbor team will make an unusual series of observations on the sunken fin whale that will allow them to explore the ecological relationships involved in the natural process of decomposition in marine ecosystems. The researchers will use ROVs (remotely operated vehicles), underwater photography, and divers to document the complexity and dynamics of the ecological community that benefits from the decomposition of the soft body parts of the fin whale. Divers will be able to observe the whale directly and obtain microbial and other samples from the whale at intervals.

Researchers will determine, perhaps by late 2008, when the skull and skeletal parts can be retrieved from the seafloor near San Juan Island, where the ecological study will take place. The valuable bones will then come to the Burke Museum, where they can be studied and put on public display. The Burke Museum also plans to show the video documentation of the seafloor activity.

A sampling of the Burke whales was displayed last summer at the Burke’s first “Meet the Mammals Day.” Others, including the new fin whale, will be exhibited in the future.null

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National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce