Nfld. & Labrador

Researchers hope to learn secrets in blue whale bones

Researchers are studying the amount of oil in the bones of two blue whale carcasses beached on Newfoundland's west coast. They hope it will reveal more about how whales withstand diving pressure.
The blue whale bones were in compost for two years to remove the remaining flesh and clean the bone. (Justine DiCesare/ROM)

Researchers are studying the amount of oil in the bones of two blue whale carcasses beached on Newfoundland's west coast two years ago, in the hope it will reveal how whales withstand diving pressure.

The bones have just been removed from a compost mix that has been slowly decomposing excess flesh, cleaning the skeletons for public display at Memorial University's St. John's campus and at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). 

Researchers hope to get insight into anatomy secrets that have never been studied before. 

"We're inspecting them to see how clean they are," said Mark Engstrom, a senior curator with the ROM. "We're weighing all of them so we can see how much they weigh before and after we extract the oil, then get an idea of the quantity of oil that was in all the bones."

Mark Engstrom expects the Trout River blue whale bones will be ready for display at ROM by March 2017. (Justine DiCesare/ROM)

He said it will be the first time researchers have measured the amount of oil in the bones of a blue whale. They will have to "dry clean" the bone because composting will not remove the oil inside. 

"We believe that the whale bone has a lot of oil in it, in part to resist pressure during dives and so on, and we're just curious to see how much that is, and whether or not we can demonstrate that is the case."  

Only 400 left in world

In May 2014, a team from the ROM began the gruesome process of carving up the two 150-tonne blue whales. One carcass was beached in Trout River, the other washed ashore in Rocky Harbour. The story received national and international attention.

"(People) are especially interested in blue whales," said Engstrom in an interview with the Corner Brook Morning Show.  "They're not only the largest whale on the planet, but they're the largest animal that has ever lived, and I think people are caught by the fact that there are only 400 of these whales left in the world."

Researchers hope the quantity of oil removed from the bones will tell them more about how blue whales withstand diving pressure. (Justine DiCesare/ROM)

Engstrom hopes the whales will continue to captivate the public and promote conservation when the bones are put on permanent display in the ROM, and at the new core science building under construction at Memorial University.

He expects the set of whale bones harvested from Trout River will be installed at the ROM in March 2017. 

"We're racing against the clock to get this whale completed," said Engstrom.

The 78-foot long Rocky Harbour whale bound for MUN's campus will be installed later, depending on the building's construction schedule. 

The heart of that whale is now being plasticized in Germany. The massive organ, which weighs more than 180 kilograms when drained of fluids, will be be sent back to the ROM when the 16-month preservation process is complete.

With files from Corner Brook Morning Show