Scientists from UMass Amherst to Study Skeletal Remains of Humpback Whale Found off Wellfleet

AMHERST, Mass. - University of Massachusetts scientists will preserve and prepare the skeleton of a humpback whale spotted off Wellfleet and towed to Truro on Cape Cod earlier this week. The whale, an adolescent female, is approximately 35 feet long.

Researchers believe it was about two years old. UMass researchers expect to work on Ballston Beach in Truro from about 8 a.m. until dusk on May 8 and 9. Assistant professor of biology Jin Meng and UMass collection manager for mammals Kate Doyle will join colleagues from the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and the New England Aquarium in doing the field work.

New England Aquarium researchers will take samples of the animal’s muscles and blubber, in order to determine whether it died of natural causes, Doyle said. The UMass scientists will salvage the animal’s skeleton and baleen, the screen of specialized hair-like tissue through which some species of whale feed. The materials will be used for research and education purposes, she added.

Biology professor William E. Bemis, director of the zoological collections, has actively pursued opportunities to salvage whales and other marine mammals. "It is important to accept responsibility for collecting and curating zoological specimens whenever possible, for there is no guarantee that such opportunities will occur again," said Bemis.

Sometimes called the "singing whale," male humpbacks are also known for their long, complex, repetitive vocalizations. Listed as a federally endangered species, the humpback whale population is approximately 10,000 worldwide, about 8 percent of its estimated initial population, according to the Office of Protected Resources in Silver Spring, Md., which coordinates marine species protection for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Humpbacks often reach lengths of 45-50 feet, and are distinguished by their long white flippers and their ability to raise their tails high into the air when they dive, according to the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown. Between 5,000 and 7,000 humpback whales live in the western North Atlantic. Humpbacks are seen in the waters off Cape Cod during spring, summer, and fall, although a few animals may remain in the area through the winter, according to the center. Humpbacks come to these waters in the summer to feed on small schooling fish such as cod, anchovies, or herring, and mothers also bring their calves to the area, using the waters as a nursery, says Bemis.

The carcass will be transported to an off-campus facility in western Massachusetts, where it will be prepared as a skeleton, a process which can take up to a year, Doyle said. The skeleton may reveal clues about the evolution of whales, as well as the individual animal’s health and development. The zoological collection has recently obtained and preserved remains of dolphins, seals, and two other baleen whales, she said. Bemis added, "We hope eventually to be able to display portions of our growing collection of whales as major exhibits in our planned Massachusetts museum of natural history."