Tasmanian museum team helping research to understand whale strandings


When news broke that more than 200 pilot whales had been stranded off the rugged west coast of Tasmania, it did not take long for the calls to come flooding in.

Not only calls for help, but also calls from researchers worldwide, wanting to jump at the chance to get specific samples from these hard-to-reach deep-sea creatures.

So what will this mean for our understanding of strandings and the broader species?

David Hocking is the senior curator of vertebrate zoology and palaeontology for the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) and was involved in the collection of data from the whales that did not survive at Strahan.

He said that, while no one wants to see mass strandings such as those that have now occurred twice in just two years at Ocean Beach, the benefits for research were significant.

“[Pilot whales] are diving down to, sort of, 800 meters and feeding on deep-sea squid, primarily,” Dr Hocking said.

“So it’s an animal that we don’t get to see all that often out in the wild.

“It gives us an opportunity to work out things about how their family groups are structured — but we can also look at the animals themselves.”

Dr David Hocking hopes the samples collected will lead to a greater understanding of why whale strandings occur.(ABC News: Andy Cunningham)

This includes analysis of the scars often found in the skin of males as a result of fighting during the breeding season, as well as skin samples taken from the deceased whales to catalog their sex and age as well as the overall health of the pod.

“Looking at that sort of information — about how that pod is structured, how it’s made up — we can work out, essentially, how these animals are living at sea and what sort of community they actually have out there,” Dr Hocking said.

“These sorts of genetics will, in future, allow us to look at the stranding that’s happened now and whether or not there are relationships between the animals from this event and the previous one.

“It’s really just hard to know exactly what’s happening, and the samples that we’re collecting as part of these events will hopefully help us get closer to an answer.”

A whale skull on a table.
A whale skull was recently added to Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s archives for analysis.(ABC News: Andy Cunningham)

International calls flood in

Beyond the standard samples collected, this stranding also came with other requests coming from across the globe.

“For instance, one of the samples we were able to collect was the brain from one of the animals, which is going to some researchers in the US [who] are interested in whether or not some sort of brain injury may be partly one of the things that contributes to these sorts of events,” Dr Hocking said.

“So, that’s a really, really important and valuable source of information that might get us closer to an answer.”

Barnacles lodged onto the teeth of one of the whales were also collected for a researcher in Spain, with that call coming as the TMAG team was busy at work on the beach.

Barnacles inside a jar.
Barnacles were collected off the tooth of a deceased pilot whale, to assist a researcher in Spain.(ABC News: Andy Cunningham)

All of these specimens collected will be stored in the state’s long-term collection, with skin samples stored in ultra-low temperature freezers to preserve the tissue.

As technology advances, it’s hoped more and more information will be able to be extracted.

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