Cause of death given for stranded Holkham fin whale

Fin whale washed up on the beach on the Holkham estate. ANL-161021-092144001
Fin whale washed up on the beach on the Holkham estate. ANL-161021-092144001
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A dead fin whale found stranded at Holkham Beach on Thursday is thought to have died from starvation due to a spinal abnormality.

There was speculation the juvenile female whale may have died as a result of being struck by a ship, but today the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) gave a provisional cause of death as ‘starvation, consequential to spinal abnormality’.

Officials examining a fin whale which washed up on Holkham beach on the afternoon of Thursday, October 20. ANL-161021-163900001

Officials examining a fin whale which washed up on Holkham beach on the afternoon of Thursday, October 20. ANL-161021-163900001

A CSIP team carried out a field necropsy on the mammal on Friday afternoon and today the group posted its findings on Facebook.

It said: “We found that the 13m whale was in very poor nutritional condition, with the transverse processes of the spine visibly protruding along the rear part of the body and notable hollowing of the dorsal flanks.

“No evidence of previous entanglements or of fresh injuries consistent with recent ship strike was found, although we couldn’t examine the left side of the body due to the stranding position.

“Abrasions on the underside of the keel and on the leading edge of the right tail fluke, together with the fresh nature of the carcass on initial discovery, were all considered to be consistent with recent live stranding.

“There was no evidence of recent feeding and minor parasite burdens were present at various sites in the body. The organs were all moderately decomposed, despite the animal probably having died within the last few days.

“There was a distinct kink or curvature in the body shape, with an approximate 30-40 degree bend in the tailstock, with an associated dorsal ‘hump’. The curvature was largely in a vertical direction, but there was also some lateral distortion from the midline, with displacement somewhat to the left.

“The location of the ‘hump’ approximately corresponded with some scarring noted on the ventral abdominal region (just caudal to the termination of the throat pleats).

“When we dissected the ‘humped’ region, we found that the spinous processes of the vertebra were misaligned, illustrating the general misalignment of the spine. The surrounding musculature on the right side of the body also appeared to be much more oedematous and reddened compared to that on the left, although this may be partly associated with live stranding.

“So to summarise, the evidence from the post mortem indicates that the fin whale had developed a spinal abnormality (possibly a kyphosis or kyphoscoliosis), which had potentially limited the degree of movement and lead to the progressive wasting of the musculature and eventual live stranding and death.

“The degree of muscle wasting appeared much more profound along the tail-stock, behind the ‘hump’, so we speculate that the spinal abnormality had limited the degree of movement in that region in particular, which would have impacted on the animal’s ability to dive and feed.

“The spinal abnormality may have been congenital, but it is certainly possible that the whale may have survived an historical traumatic event.

“However, we cannot confirm or rule this out this without having examined the other side of the whale to look for other evidence of scarring or traumatic injuries.”

The CSIP is awaiting the results of further analyses which may alter the final cause of death, but it has provisionally been given as ‘starvation, consequential to spinal abnormality (kyphosis or kyphoscoliosis)’.

It has appealed for anyone with images or footage taken of the left side of the whale to get in touch as it could help the organisation learn more about the reasons for the whale’s death and stranding.

To visit the CSIP Facebook page, click here.