Friday, June 21, 2013

Berardius stranding in Southland

 Back in January, two Arnoux's beaked whales stranded down near Invercargill, and Ewan was interested in obtaining flippers for fellow Ph.D. student Moyna Mueller's dissertation on the comparative forelimb anatomy and myology of odontocetes. Collectively species of Berardius are known as the giant beaked whales, and include the northern hemisphere Berardius bairdii (Baird's beaked whale), and the southern hemisphere Berardius arnuxii. Little is known about these cetaceans, and the Arnoux's beaked whale in particular is rarely seen - Ewan encouraged me to come down, as it is probably a once in a lifetime experience for a northern hemisphere cetacean researcher to witness. Ewan and others headed down the day before to start work on the first carcass, while I stayed in town to get some more dissertation work done, and headed down the next day with Alan Tennyson (paleornithologist at Te Papa/National Museum of NZ) and Travis Park (Ph.D. student, Monash University) who were in town for the Southern Connections conference. Labmate Felix Marx joined us for the second day, and we were also joined by Aussie paleontologist Maria Zammit, who did her Ph.D. with Benjamin Kear at the South Australian Museum in Adelaide.

We arrived at Omaui Beach after missing a few turns and driving all the way into Bluff - alarmingly, Ewan's team was nowhere to be found, and more problematic - there was no carcass either! After a few minutes a local DOC volunteer showed up and told us that the carcass probably floated north along the beach, although an earlier search failed to locate it.

 Our half of the team heading off down the beach towards the probable location of the carcass.

 On our way up the shore to the stranding, we came across a single Fiordland Crested Penguin - Eudyptes pachyrhynchus - a rare penguin to spot. Photo courtesy Travis Parker.


A better photo of the penguin. This guy was not feeling well - he had been bitten by a shark, taken in by some locals to DOC, and after keeping him/her over night they put it back on the beach. Photo courtesy Travis Park.

This was my first penguin sighting in the wild - pretty exciting! Especially since I had not yet seen the far more common little blue penguins (Eudyptula) or Yellow-eyed penguin (Megadyptes).

Carcass spotted! The carcass as we first smelled it. Actually, it didn't smell too badly. Photo courtesy Travis Park.

Te Papa (National Museum of New Zealand) paleornithologist Alan Tennyson examines the carcass.
Photo courtesy Travis Park.

The carcass was a bit bloated even after only about 24-48 hours of decay, and the tongue and vulva were already quite swollen and extruding from the body. It also left this bloody puddle around the rock. 

 Shark bite marks, almost certainly from a great white (Carcharodon carcharias). It's unclear whether or not this set is partially healed or not. Photo courtesy Travis Park.

A glamor shot of the carcass on the coastline.

 Yours truly posing alongside the dead ziphiid.

Travis Park after enjoying the dissection. Photo courtesy Travis Park.

The pathologist Stu, from Massey, washing off his hands.

Alan switching out tools. Photo courtesy Travis Park.

Travis sharpens his flensing knife a bit. Photo courtesy Travis Park.

On the way back to the cars we found a bone sticking out of the beach sands - turned out to be the occipital condyles of a large cetacean skull. We're still not sure what it is; my initial impression was a very large ziphiid or a small Eubalaena, but looking back at the photos I think it very well could be a Balaenoptera. We were unable to budge it, and with numb hands substituting for actual tools, not to mention the driving rain, high wind, and rapidly cooling conditions typical of a balmy summer day in Southland (think northern Scotland), we quickly decided to leave it and head back into town to get some much needed food. From left: Alan Tennyson, Travis Park (in hat), Marcus Richards (in khaki coveralls).

We were actually fairly far from the dunes, so the spot is probably only accessible during low tides. Fellow marine tetrapod paleontologist Maria Zammit watches with amusement as she keeps her hands nice and warm. The local DOC volunteer wasn't quite as excited by the prospect of bones.

Due to the water level, any sand we removed would just settle back in around the skull.

Our half of the team heading back to Omaui Beach near Bluff.


Bewildermunster said...

What an adventure, that would be so amazing to see in person!

Robert Boessenecker said...

Thanks - it was pretty spectacular! I've seen a lot of stranded marine mammals on the California coast, but most have been California sea lions, harbor and elephant seals. I hadn't really seen a large cetacean up close before.

It was also a lot less smelly than I ever imagined.