Museum Victoria staff collected this Cuvier's Beaked Whale, which was washed up on shore near Cape Otway, for analysis and classification.
Image: Pam Dodsworth
Source: Pam Dodsworth
The corpse of a whale washed ashore at Johanna near Cape Otway has been analysed and classified by staff at Melbourne Museum and other researchers.
Mammal collection staff at the museum occasionally receive information notifying them of specimens that may contribute to knowledge and research. On 31 July 2008 staff were contacted about a small deceased cetacean, which had been beached. While initially described as a dolphin, an image forwarded suggested the creature might be a distinctive beaked whale. It is believed that the whale probably died of complications shortly after it was born, perhaps after becoming separated from its mother.
As Wayne Longmore, who works in Ornithology and Mammalogy, asks: “How easy is it for a simple telephone call or email to disrupt the normal flow of your day? This is the way we work in the mammal collection. Most recently, we got a message late on a Thursday. Were we interested?”
The museum quickly responded and two staff members set off on Friday 1 August to retrieve the whale. Preparators at Melbourne Museum have developed a system that assists them to respond to notifications rapidly. A prompt response is important because a beached whale is vulnerable to predators from both land and sea, and can be susceptible to tampering from curious and irresponsible passers-by. Wind and tide could potentially move the specimen kilometres along the beach, or return it to sea.
Department of Sustainability and Environment officers who had reported the stranding to the museum and Parks Victoria officers kept a close watch – securing the body overnight. Despite the intense cold, strong winds, and heavy squalls, the body was transported to a point for transfer to the museum’s vehicle, so that it could eventually be positively identified.
Obtaining beaked whales of any species is highly desirable and useful, as few are represented in Australian mammal collections, and this analysis provided an opportunity to add to current knowledge of the group.
Museum staff confirmed the specimen as a very young female Cuvier's Beaked Whale (Ziphius cavirostris), one of few in the museum’s collection. Researchers from Monash University and museum staff follow a thorough process in these cases, whereby the marine mammal is measured, photographed and autopsied immediately and tissue samples are taken for DNA analysis. Kate Charlton from Monash University, who helped conduct the autopsy, explains that no clear cause of death emerged, as the whale exhibited no obvious signs of abnormality or parasites. The specimen is of a kind rarely seen.
All results are retained by the museum along with the specimen, while information is distributed to other organisations with similar interests.