Tasmanian museum team helping research to understand whale strandings
When news broke that more than 200 pilot whales had been stranded off the rugged west coast of Tasmania, it did not take long for the calls to come flooding in.
Not only calls for help, but also calls from researchers worldwide, wanting to jump at the chance to get specific samples from these hard-to-reach deep-sea creatures.
So what will this mean for our understanding of strandings and the broader species?
David Hocking is the senior curator of vertebrate zoology and palaeontology for the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) and was involved in the collection of data from the whales that did not survive at Strahan.
He said that, while no one wants to see mass strandings such as those that have now occurred twice in just two years at Ocean Beach, the benefits for research were significant.
"[Pilot whales] are diving down to, sort of, 800 metres and feeding on deep-sea squid, primarily," Dr Hocking said.
"So it's an animal that we don't get to see all that often out in the wild.
"It gives us an opportunity to work out things about how their family groups are structured — but we can also look at the animals themselves."
This includes analysis of the scars often found in the skin of males as a result of fighting during the breeding season, as well as skin samples taken from the deceased whales to catalogue their sex and age as well as the overall health of the pod.
"Looking at that sort of information — about how that pod is structured, how it's made up — we can work out, essentially, how these animals are living at sea and what sort of community they actually have out there," Dr Hocking said.
"These sorts of genetics will, in future, allow us to look at the stranding that's happened now and whether or not there are relationships between the animals from this event and the previous one.
"It's really just hard to know exactly what's happening, and the samples that we're collecting as part of these events will hopefully help us get closer to an answer."
Beyond the standard samples collected, this stranding also came with other requests coming from across the globe.
"For instance, one of the samples we were able to collect was the brain from one of the animals, which is going to some researchers in the US [who] are interested in whether or not some sort of brain injury may be partly one of the things that contributes to these sorts of events," Dr Hocking said.
"So, that's a really, really important and valuable source of information that might get us closer to an answer."
Barnacles lodged onto the teeth of one of the whales were also collected for a researcher in Spain, with that call coming as the TMAG team was busy at work on the beach.
All of these specimens collected will be stored in the state's long-term collection, with skin samples stored in ultra-low temperature freezers to preserve the tissue.
As technology advances, it's hoped more and more information will be able to be extracted.
Saving the whales stranded on Tasmania's west coast could be emotionally taxing work, but knowing that even a few would be saved has kept the team pushing through, rescuers say.
That goes for the approaches taken to strandings as well, Dr Hocking said, with 3D modelling based on drone footage being explored as a potential option for scouring the site of a stranding in future.
"In the last few years, using photogrammetry — so making 3D models from photographs — has really come a long way," he said.
"So, you can now fly a helicopter drone over an area and then look at all the animals on the beach.
"Essentially, we're trying to work out how these new technologies that are developing could be applied … and whether or not they make our job easier or harder."
Tasmanian professor of marine and polar predator ecology Mary-Anne Lea said a database like the one at TMAG's research facility was a vital tool for researchers, particularly as the scientific world moves increasingly towards open-source data.
Strahan is a popular destination to visit but the site of Australia's worst whale stranding is now littered with rotting carcasses, reducing some visitors to tears.
"That hasn't been the case in the past," Professor Lea said.
Previously, she said, it was easy for a researcher who had spent their whole life working on one species to not want to share their hard-earned research with others.
"Those times have changed … it's much more about working together to answer the wicked problems that face the species we study," she said.
"Especially with the world we live in, with climate change and biodiversity crises, there's an imperative for us to answer really critical questions more quickly than in the past and, so, now we work together to lodge our data."
For the understanding of deep-sea animals, and particularly unpredictable events such as whale strandings, that collaboration could potentially "revolutionise" global knowledge.
"Whether it's a single animal here or mass stranding there, they occur sporadically over so many years," Professor Lea said.
"It's like a jigsaw puzzle. It takes a long time to pull together all the elements that underpin the story.
"The Natural Resources and Environment staff and TMAG have done an incredible job of amassing an enormous amount of information … and that's invaluable."
While this data presents serious opportunities, answers are still unlikely for some time, both Dr Hocking and Professor Lea agree, as often there is a lag between the specimens being lodged and research being completed.
"That kind of data could be valuable for … short projects [through] to PhDs," Professor Lea said.
"Having databases and greater accessibility … enables projects to occur more quickly, but it's more about the depth of that research that can occur."
There was also the consideration of how quickly the cost of analysing the specimens could add up, she said.
"It's really expensive to do this work, which is why it's often not done," Professor Lea said.
"That's, again, where the collaboration comes in."
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