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CSI Alaska Wildlife: Medical scanners help research short life, death of killer whale calf

  • Author: Sean Doogan
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published September 7, 2013

Workers at the Alaska Spine Institute are adept at operating their medical scanning machines. More than 2,000 people per year cycle through the facility near the University of Alaska Anchorage, suffering from torn ligaments, disc problems in the back and neck, and a host of other ailments. But one patient on Friday was, let's just say, a whale of a challenge for the imaging technicians there. A killer whale calf that had died hundreds of miles away in the Bering Sea was being prepared for a CT scan, and scientists and ASI staff tried to wrestle the animal into position on a table built for people, not marine mammals.

"We've fielded a lot of calls, to scan a lot of things, but never whales," said Stan James, ASI's Imaging Services Manager. "I was like, 'Hey guys, you're never going to believe this, but...," he said as his staff continued trying to position the whale inside the high-tech scanning machine.

The animal, 7 feet long and weighing about 250 pounds, was tiny by killer whale standards. Its body washed up on St. Paul Island, 768 air miles southwest of Anchorage. The whale, given the designation #2013-185, was discovered Tuesday by a group of people looking for birds -- a popular pastime for visitors to the remote volcanic island which sits between Alaska and Russia at the nexus of a major bird migration route. Scientists said the whale most likely died just after being born, somewhere in the Bering Sea.

The whale's small size presents a massive opportunity for researchers. Usually, when killer whales are found dead on a remote shore, biologists and veterinarians have to travel to the carcass to do a necropsy and take tissue and bone samples. The animals can reach 26 feet long and weigh as much as 6 tons. A carcass can rot quickly, so scientists usually have to act fast to get to the animal. Very small whales, by contrast, are easy to transport.

This carcass, put in a cargo plane and flown to Anchorage to be examined by scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service and SeaWorld, stayed relatively fresh. And since it was so small, the whale could even be squeezed into a CT (computed tomography) scanning machine so researchers could build a digital 3-D model of the animal.

"The death of any whale is a sad event, but the amount of scientific data we will get will be amazing," said Dr. Judy St. Leger, director of pathology and research for SeaWorld.

Marine scientists will use the Alaska Spine Institute CT scan to drive ongoing research about the growth and development of killer whales, also known by their scientific name as orcas. Researchers will pay special attention to the ear of the animal scanned on Friday, to see how its bones differ from those of full-grown orcas. An MRI scan was also done on the whale's brain before it was taken to a UAA lab for a necropsy, the name for an animal post-mortem examination.

"The whale is very small, even for a neonatal (newborn) whale," said Barbara Mahoney, a scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. "The necropsy should tell us if it even lived to take its first breath after birth," she said.

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