UMass Amherst Receives Remains of Rare Right Whale

AMHERST, Mass. - Researchers at the University of Massachusetts have received the skeleton of the northern right whale found dead last week off Cape Cod. The announcement was made by biology professor William "Willy" Bemis, who noted that "it is our first right whale, and a very significant addition to the University’s growing collection of marine mammals." The whale, a female named Staccato, which had been monitored by the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown for 25 years, weighed approximately 50 tons, and was roughly 47 feet long. Staccato had given birth to at least six calves during her lifetime, scientists say.

The common name "right whale" refers to the fact that whalers considered this species to be the easiest whale to capture and process, because it is relatively slow, and the carcass floats. Because of these characteristics, Bemis said, commercial whaling greatly reduced the number of right whales. Although commercial whaling for right whales ended decades ago, the species has been slow to recover, he said. Scientists believe that fewer than 350 northern right whales remain in the world, making this species among the rarest of large mammals, Bemis said.

Following a necropsy conducted by scientists from institutions including the New England Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium, the Center for Coastal Studies, the Cape Cod Stranding Network, and UMass, the University transported to an off-campus research facility the skeleton and baleen, the comb-like cartilage filter through which right whales feed. The skeleton will be prepared for study and possible exhibition. Scientists are now seeking biological information about the whale, as well as an indication of the cause of death. It was unclear whether the animal had died of natural causes, or was struck by watercraft. Right whales, which bear the Latin name eubalaena glacialis, are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. They often do not see an approaching boat until it’s close enough to kill them, Bemis said. State wildlife officials spotted 20 of the endangered whales in the eastern portion of Cape Cod Bay last week, and issued the state’s first-ever "right-whale alert," warning boaters to avoid the marine mammals.

"We are very pleased to have been chosen as the repository for this important specimen," said Bemis. "We are one of the very few zoological collections in the country to have the facility and expertise needed to prepare large whales, and our collection manager, Kate Doyle, has proved especially adept at salvaging these unique specimens. This is hard, grueling work."

What makes collection of these specimens so important, Bemis said, is that there is "surprisingly limited knowledge about the complete skeleton of large marine mammals and any skeletal variation that may exist. These specimens are not only hard to collect and prepare but also very difficult to store. Consequently, few collections ever focused on such materials."

During the era of commercial whaling, Bemis said, many specimens were collected and prepared incorrectly or incompletely, "and thus the opportunities to salvage any specimens that become available now must be seized if we are to complete our knowledge base." Also, each specimen provides a specific documented occurrence for the species, and this can be particularly valuable when other facts about a specimen ? such as its reproductive history ? also are available. "In the case of Staccato," Bemis said, "the long data base about her life can be tied permanently to a specific specimen held in a natural history collection."

In addition to the specimens of marine mammals, the University has other rapidly growing natural history collections, Bemis said, including plants, invertebrates, fishes, amphibians and reptiles. These collections will be housed in a proposed Museum of Natural History at the University, which Bemis and other faculty members and collection managers are working toward establishing.