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Killer whale carcass at UF to be transferred to nation’s capital by end of summer

The killer whale was found by beachgoers in Palm Coast, Florida, on Jan. 11. (AP)
The killer whale was found by beachgoers in Palm Coast, Florida, on Jan. 11. (AP)

After spending months at an undisclosed location at the University of Florida, the remains of a killer whale will be transported nearly 800 miles north to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., by the end of this summer.

In January, the 21-foot killer whale — or orca — was found stranded on the beach in Palm Coast and was sent to a lab at SeaWorld in Orlando to determine the cause of death.

The discovery marked the Sunshine State’s first orca stranding since 1956. The skull of that killer whale from nearly 70 years ago still resides in a mammal collection at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Lab results revealed the killer whale discovered in Palm Coast was an older female with signs of chronic illness, and the dead whale was transported the day after it was found to an undisclosed research facility in Gainesville to decompose and undergo further examination.

The facility’s location remains secret because the orca is protected under federal law, according to Dr. Jason Byrd, a professor and associate director of the William R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine at the UF College of Medicine.

“There are many federally protected species at that location,” Byrd said. “The laws protect the animals in life as well as their tissues after death.”

Scientists at the facility have been conducting numerous studies with the goal of interpreting decomposing artifacts on marine mammals to determine whether they are natural or artificial, according to Byrd.

“We’re trying to use these deceased marine mammals to create a new way to estimate the post-mortem interval to be able to determine how long they’ve been dead when they are found,” Byrd said. “And we’re trying to validate some old ways that have been used for post-mortem interval estimation of terrestrial animals to see if they work on marine mammals.”

While no scientific conclusions have been made due to the ongoing nature of the study, Byrd said he was startled by his initial observations.

“Marine mammals are decomposing completely different than other mammals, which means all the data we have on terrestrial decomposition and post-mortem interval information probably has to be omitted,” Byrd said. “We start over again in the world of marine mammals it seems.”

The killer whale is not the only marine mammal that the university is using for this particular research, according to Byrd, but it is the only orca.

“The decomposition process takes a period of time, so we’re monitoring as it progresses,” Byrd said. “Once we’re done, the skeleton will be transported to the Smithsonian [National Museum of Natural History].”

Although there is no official timetable, the whale’s skeleton will likely be delivered this August, according to Michael McGowen, a research scientist and curator of marine mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

“We have a big pickup truck, and [the whale] should fit in the pickup truck, so we’re just going to drive down there and get it and drive back up,” McGowen said. “Our collections guy has been down there a few times to pick stuff up and do stuff, so he’ll probably go down to pick it up.”

This pickup process is expected to involve far less travel than the time it took to move a Rice’s whale that was stranded in the Everglades a few years ago and sent to the museum in stages, according to McGowen.

“[The whale] was left in the St. Petersburg area to decay a bit, and then at some point, we exhumed it and took it to North Carolina, where it continued to sort of decay for a while to get everything off,” McGowen said. “Then we finally brought it up to Washington [D.C.].”

Once the orca arrives in the nation’s capital, its skeleton will be kept in a “behind-the-scenes” research collection area at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History that attracts scientists worldwide, according to McGowen.

“A lot of people don’t realize that the natural history museum is not just an exhibit,” he said. “It has a whole collection behind the scenes — a research collection — so scientists come from all over the world to study it and use it, and so [the whale] will go into that collection.”

The skeleton will join the largest collection of marine mammals in the world, where it will likely remain for the indefinite future, according to McGowen.

“It could go on display at some point in the future as part of something,” he said. “But it will more than likely remain in our study collection.”

Byrd said he hopes the university’s research will ultimately reach beyond the Gainesville community and assist future studies on marine mammals.

“We hope that this research will eventually help those working on marine-mammal cases and strandings to determine how long the animal has been deceased and help them interpret some of the patterns they’re seeing on these animals,” Byrd said. “If it is human-induced, then we want to provide enough on it to be able to figure out that.”

Griffin is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.