Whale skeleton Scientists at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto are hoping that some good can come from three dead North Atlantic right whale skeletons, towed to a beach on P.E.I. this summer.
DNA samples from the whales are now in a research lab at the ROM and bones from one of the whales are being prepared to become part of the museum’s collection.
The ROM approached Fisheries and Oceans Canada when it heard the three dead right whales were being brought to shore.
A crew from the museum and from Research Castings International (RCI) then raced to the whale skeleton scene on a remote beach in western P.E.I., where the necropsies were already underway.
“We want to learn as much as possible and being such an endangered animal, it’s important that we actually study it,” said Oliver Haddrath, DNA technician at the ROM.
“Luckily when we got out there, the progress through the necropsies was extremely rapid,” said Jacqueline Miller, mammalogy technician at the ROM.
With the necropsies complete, the ROM and RCI teams got to work.
“It has to have been the messiest and smelliest job I think I’ve ever done in my life,” said Haddrath, working on a whale carcass for the first time.
“Once you’re out there, the smell is so overwhelming, it’s everywhere,” added Miller.
“It’s messy, it’s oily, it takes a long time to get clean. You can smell it in your hotel room the next morning.”
The crew used large knives, some of them custom made for whales, with blades a metre long. The process of removing the flesh is called flensing, a term from the whaling industry.
“The hardest part was doing the tail because there’s a lot of muscle attachments to the bone because the tail has very powerful muscles and they’re very strong and very hard to remove,” said Haddrath.
The crew had also hoped to collect baleen and the heart but the whales had already decomposed too badly.
The samples are now in the museum’s ultra cold freezers.
“We’ve done a DNA extraction on one of the samples, just to see how viable the DNA is and it looks very good,” said Haddrath.
The Royal Ontario Museum opened a new exhibit in the spring of 2017 centred around a blue whale, also an endangered species.
The whale skeleton came from a similar tragic event, when 9 whales were trapped in ice in Newfoundland and Labrador in the winter of 2014.