November 22, 2006

Burke Catches a Whale

Posted by: Rebecca Durkin

It’s in the news:
A dead fin whale was discovered floating in the Puget Sound near Everett, WA. The fin whale is the second largest whale, and, in fact, the second largest living animal. The recovered whale was still a juvenile, and measured a whopping 54 feet in length.

The Burke will become the home of this whale, but not for another 2-3 years. What’s the delay? Well, we’re letting this skeleton decompose in a whole new way…

Normally, to clean and prepare a whale skeleton for our collection, Burke researchers start by burying it in sand, allowing it to decompose. Then we scrape, cook, and clean the bones to remove any remaining muscle and tissue.

This time, the whale will be sunk off the coast of San Juan Island, where it will become the subject of an ecological study by UW’s Friday Harbor Labs and other researchers, tracking natural decomposition processes in an underwater environment (read: snails, worms, and other lovely things dining on the whale’s remains).

After 2-3 years of natural decomposition, the bones should hopefully be picked clean by ocean critters, then the bones will be retrieved and join the Burke’s mammal collection.

This is the first time the Burke is acquiring a skeleton through this novel method. Our curator of mammals, Jim Kenagy, is as excited about the process as he is about eventually receiving the bones. Along with the enormous skeleton, he hopes to have video of the seafloor activity, filmed during the years the whale is underwater, accessible to the public, perhaps online or in a Burke exhibit.

For those who have a strong stomach, keep an eye on this story. It’s not for the queazy.

- Rebecca

Photo provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration / Department of Commerce