Beached Galveston Whale Raises Concerns and Curiosities

Back in December, a 44-foot sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis) washed ashore and died on the Galveston coastline near the Terramar subdivision. It was sighted by a passerby who spied it rolling in the waves, its spout the only clear sign that it was alive. A crowd gathered, including a local dolphin rescue group and machinery crews who brought out a front-end loader.

Not much could be done for the whale, unfortunately, since its size prevented advocacy groups and interested citizens from helping it back into the ocean. A frightened whale, rolling in the waves, poses a serious threat of crushing those who wish to help it. Onlookers had no choice but to watch and hope for the best.

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Sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis)

When the whale stopped spouting, a sign it was no longer breathing, crews dragged it ashore so a necropsy, or animal autopsy, could be performed and its species could be identified. After the seven-hour procedure to determine its cause of death, results were inconclusive and remained murky for several weeks. A number of combined factors could have contributed to its becoming stranded. The whale was dragged on shore by front-end loaders and buried in a deep trench near the water table, common practice for any beached cetacean.

“Typically when dolphins are beached, we take them to an off-site location and bury them. This whale was 60,000 pounds, so we buried it at the site where it washed up,” said Mary Beth Bassett, Public Relations Coordinator for the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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Woodcut of Dutch whalers in the 1800s.

The World Wildlife Fund lists the sei whale as an endangered species, with less than 12,000 individuals estimated to live in today’s oceans. Commercial whalers targeted the species and hunted them heavily when blue and fin whales became scarce, driving their numbers dangerously low. While advocacy groups continue to work to restore the population, the sei whale, and ocean-going whales in general, remain difficult to track and understand, and so must be protected through international whaling laws.

Because whales use echolocation to navigate, sonar from commercial ships might confuse whales, driving them into dangerous situations that lead to beachings, explained Tina Petway, Houston Museum of Natural Science Associate Curator of Malacology. This could have played a factor in the death of this whale, which was also probably ill and its navigational faculties already impaired.

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Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus)

“Whales frequently have parasites that get in the inner ear and cause them to have echolocation problems and lose their balance easily,” Petway said. “They can be led off their paths when their echolocation doesn’t seem to work.”

Petway theorized that some of these ocean-going whales unused to inshore areas can become “lost” between sandbars. When led astray, they might pass a sandbar and believe they are heading back out to sea when in fact, they are in a trough between sandbars. By this time, they are trapped and the inshore current continues to push them further onto the beach.

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Bryce’s whale, (Balaenoptera brydei) with three distinctive ridges on its head.

“But something was wrong before it got stranded,” Petway said.

The sei whale belongs to a family of fin whales characterized by a small, backward-curving dorsal fin far down their backs. Only four whales have this specific characteristic, the blue whale, the fin whale (its name no surprise), the Bryde’s (pronounced broo-des) whale, and the sei whale. The Bryde’s and the sei are difficult to distinguish from one another. They are almost identical in size and shape, but the Bryde’s has three ridges on the top of its head running from its blowhole to its snout, while the sei whale has only one.

“Almost all species of whales can be found in the Gulf of Mexico,” Petway said. “We have pods of killer whales (orcas) in the Gulf of Mexico. They don’t travel. They are resident pods.”

Baleen

Fin whales all use baleen to catch and filter krill out of large gulps of seawater. They swim through large schools of krill, or copopods, with their mouths open, and push the water through the baleen (which has the appearance of broom bristles hanging from the top of the mouth) with their tongues. Like dust, the baleen catches the krill, which the whale then swallows.

plastic ocean

The growing amount of bits of plastic in the ocean, now so far broken down some of it is microscopic, is a concern for baleen whales. Because the bits of plastic are about the same size as krill, they are filtered out and swallowed with all the rest. Scientists are unsure how this affects whales since they are difficult to study, but it can’t be good. You can help these whales when you observe World Oceans Day June 8 this year by making a pledge to reduce your plastic use and begin recycling. Spread the word and encourage others to do the same. Plastic in the oceans is a serious world emergency. Whales like the sei and other fin whales, which are already endangered, need no more problems threatening their numbers, and plastic affects the entire food chain, including we humans, who also depend on the oceans as a source of food.

You can size yourself up to a complete whale skeleton in HMNS’s newest exhibit, Cabinet of Curiosities, opening Friday, May 6. Personnel are currently restoring the skeleton, which has been in storage for a number of years, and will hang it from the ceiling as part of this hands-on history of wonder.

Because That’s How You Get Ants: Flooding Causes Displaced Critters to Run for Shelter, Too

Most of you probably didn’t make it in to work today, and after my short drive to the Houston Museum of Natural Science this morning, I would say that was a good call. There were plenty of cars stalled in intersections, and I watched a sixteen-wheeler make a U-turn on 288 because the water level was too high under an overpass.  

Expensive car repairs aren’t the only reason to stay home during the flash floods we periodically experience. When the water rises, it carries with it everything that is buoyant.  This could be trash that was thrown out a car window, chemicals that spilled from a car during an accident or were poured down the drain, or the critters that live under the soil and in the bushes.

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One of the most awesome and horrifying things you will hopefully never see during a flash flood is a raft of fire ants. These little guys instinctively know how to survive the catastrophic destruction of their home. They are light enough to float individually, but they stick together. This allows the ants at the base to hold up those above the water for a while. The roiling ball of ants turns constantly to allow every member of the ball to get a rest and to get enough oxygen. The ants at the edge are constantly looking for something dry on which they can cling. The instant they find a tree or a street sign, up everyone goes.

This is also horrific because sometimes that thing is you.

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The ants, which are pretty upset at this point, will absolutely swarm you if you touch this little ball of hate. They will get to the highest point they can and then they will latch on.  With their piercing mouth parts. 

So, my friends. While I applaud an interest in the out-of-doors and making new friends, please wait until the city isn’t flooded to engage in both. Because sometimes you pick your friends…

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…and sometimes they pick you!

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Editor’s Note: Learn more about the behavior of ants and other insects at the Brown Hall of Entomology in the Cockrell Butterfly Center. (When the floodwaters recede, of course.)

Return to Paraguay: Conserving the Taguá, a Living Fossil

In 1972, mammalogist Ralph Wetzel and colleagues were studying armadillo ectoparasites in the Paraguayan Chaco when they came upon a peccary (what we call javelina in Texas) that didn’t look like those already known to science. The result was Catagonus wagneri – the Chacoan peccary, known only from a fossil discovered in 1930 by Argentinian paleontologist Rusconi. During the next two decades following this discovery, a cadre of various scientists ventured to Paraguay to learn everything they could about this rare living fossil. Some such as Jon Mayer and Phil Brandt went on to other careers, while others such as noted peccary biologist Lyle Sowls have passed on.

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Chacoan peccary or taguá (Catagonus wagneri).

I was fortunate in being the youngest of this earlier wave of scientists. In 2008, for my first blog ever for BEYONDbones, I wrote about my experience in the Paraguayan Chaco, fresh out of undergraduate training. Here is the part relevant to today’s blog, taken directly from the Introduction of the 2008 blog:

“I spent 1989-1990 studying a semi-captive baited herd of Chacoan peccaries (Catagonus wagneri), an endangered medium-sized mammal endemic to the Chaco biome of central South America; taguá is the Guaraní Indian word for this distant relative of the pig sub-order. They are extremely rare, and very few people ever see a live one in the wild. Writing this piece takes me back to a time when I accomplished a lot by knowing very little. Only in my early 20s, I did a lot of growing up during my stint in the Chaco – hot water, electricity, air-conditioning, phones, TVs, stereos, etc. were nonexistent in my life, but the fauna was diverse and abundant, and the studies I was able to accomplish during my time there paved way for a lifetime of disciplined work.”

In early February 2016, I received an invitation to attend an international workshop in Asunción (Paraguay’s capital) dedicated to creating an action plan for the taguá. I received this with very mixed feelings, having not worked intensively with taguá for nearly three decades since I was very young and very green. I contacted the workshop coordinator to express my concern, and she gently and politely let me know that it was her hopes to get all the taguá biologists, present and past, together in one room, where the young could learn from the older and vice-versa. After figuring out how to get to the meeting and get the necessary blessings and permissions, I was holding plane tickets to return to Paraguay…

When I first went to Paraguay in the late 1980s to work with taguá, barely a handful of people were interested in this endangered species, let alone conserving them. I was truly heartened to see that has changed at this workshop!  All the necessary stakeholders were represented at the meeting – not just scientists, but also indigenous Guaraní who depend on taguá for protein and the hide for other uses. Landowners and administrators who advise ranchers on integrating wildlife and ranching were present, including representatives from the Mennonite colonies (Mennonites occupy a good chunk of the range where taguá occur in Paraguay) and important government officials including the heads of National Parks for certain states.

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Geographic range of the Taguá in the Chaco of Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina.

In total there more than 30 representatives from the range of the taguá (Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia) as well as a few biologists from other countries who met from late February to early March for a week of intensive meetings. On the first day of the meeting, the taguá biologists worked on reviewing the taguá’s status and distribution, and generating a population viability and habitat suitability analysis (PVHA) using a computer modeling program called Vortex. Various life history parameters from data I collected as a youth were entered into the computer program, and it spat out the number of individuals necessary to conserve the taguá well into the future.

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During the remaining three days, participants worked on identifying a vision for the action plan based on the main primary threats to the taguá. Participants were separated into three break-out working groups (habitat loss, hunting, lack of knowledge) to determine isolating problems and goals and actions that address the main threats to the taguá. The latter group (lack of knowledge) also worked on identifying potential roles for captive breeding programs. Additionally, a network of committed professionals and institutions was created to put the recommendations and priority actions into practice.

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The habitat loss break-out working group.

I think everyone enjoyed getting to work with other like-minded people toward a common goal. It was a lot of fun reuniting with old friends after so many years, as well as building new friendships. Hopefully, the governments of Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia will incorporate the action plan into their respective conservation planning.

Today, Juan Campos is the director of the project I worked on so many years ago. The project’s name has been changed to CCCI/Proyecto Taguá (translated: Chaco Center for Conservation and Investigations/The Taguá Project). Juan is a true gentleman and is doing some outstanding work!  We are currently making plans to collaborate on various projects.

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Juan Campos, left, with a current version of yours truly.

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Me circa 1989.

The man who initially sent me to Paraguay was Dr. Kurt Benirschke, who was one of the originators of the concept of breeding endangered species in captivity as a conservation tool. He is also the father of former San Diego Charger’s star kicker, Rolf Benirschke! Kurt instilled some great concepts in me at a very young age, like the one and only medicine you need in life is hard work. He used to tell wonderful stories of wildlife encounters he had in Paraguay and other areas. I remember on one such occasion he was telling me that just 25 years ago (some time around 1964), massive woolly spider monkeys or muriquis (Brachyteles arachnoides) lived in the tri-country region of I’guasu, but sadly the species had gone extinct. One of the most funny, yet very real and bittersweet moments of the week involved some storytelling of my own. Some of the younger biologists, newer yet already very experienced with Paraguay’s wildlife, were lamenting that black howler monkeys (Alouatta caraya) were now becoming extremely rare in Paraguay. I told them they were mistaken, since I remembered them from when I lived in Paraguay just 27 years ago. They were extremely common, even in the neighborhoods of Asunción, where it was possible to see them using utility lines to get around! My new, younger friends looked at each other with shock, then looked at me with suspicion, and cautiously informed me that howler monkeys disappeared from Asunción many years ago. Saddened by this, I realized that things had come full circle – another fantastic, large and charismatic vertebrate had become locally extinct in another span of roughly 25 years. Hopefully it won’t be too late for the taguá…

From HMNS to Your Family…

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Holiday Hours:

The Houston Museum of Natural Science will be closed Thanksgiving Day, but will be open for extended hours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. over the weekend. Regular hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. will resume Monday, Nov. 30.

If you’ve got room for seconds, come see our wild turkey specimen (Meleagris gallopavo) and other outstanding Texas species at the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife.