A beached whale? Abandoning the carcass can be good for the ecosystem

The Hague, May 7 (Latest).- What should be done with a whale stranded on the beach? The usual thing is to remove the carcass as soon as possible to avoid the stench and the inconvenience to the neighbors, but an investigation in the Netherlands points out the benefits of abandoning the remains: they are good for biodiversity and a food of interest for several species of beetles.

At the end of 2020, a unit of the Ministry of Agriculture and Nature located a dead whale in Rottumerplaat, one of the Frisian islands of the Netherlands, and, together with the central government and the management board of protected places (Staatsbosbeheer), they chose to place it in a suitable place so that it is not in the way of local residents, but still on the beach.

Over a seven-month period, researchers from the Wageningen Institute for Marine Studies (WUR) and the Directorate General for Public Works and Water Management (Rijkswaterstaat) took samples, set up insect traps and monitored with field cameras what what happened to the corpse on this uninhabited island.

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This experiment provided a unique opportunity to investigate how the whale carcass decomposes and what influence this has on nature, specifically that of the Wadden Sea.

“Several birds approached him. Mainly normal species, such as carrion crows, magpies and large black-backed gulls. But this was not a delicacy for the birds. The whale’s skin turned out to be too thick to peck open.”

WUR researcher Martin Baptist admitted that they expected the whale to be “a feast for the birds, which always flock to the seals” and peck at their eyes and other soft body parts, and thought that with a whale they would they would be giving “a bite of five meters long”, but that expectation was not fulfilled due to the hardness of the skin.

After six months with the whale carcass washed up on the beach, the beetles entered the picture: the remains attracted a total of 57 species of insects, including the burying beetle and the scavenger.

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“Large numbers of beetles were found that eat skin, bone and meat. In total, there were 21 species of beetles that had never been seen before on the Rottumerplaat. Some of these beetles fly from the mainland attracted by the scent of the whale”, the researchers explain.

As for the problem of the stench that a decomposing corpse can cause, the WUR noted that the smell “has never been severe”, although some days it did “linger and it was unpleasant to stay” around for a long time.

“Usually a carcass that big is cleaned up. Now it seems that it fulfills a function in the ecosystem. You might think about it beforehand, but it’s special to see it actually work this way in practice,” added research project leader Rick Hoeksema.

Another key is in the “overwhelming amount of nutrients” that flowed into the ground thanks to the corpse: “It even resulted in burned vegetation, that’s how big the overdose was,” said Hoeksema, who underlines his curiosity about how the effect will be appreciated. of these nutrients over the years with additional research.

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And what about cadmium? This element, which could be dangerous to health, is one of the main reasons why stranded whales are often urgently removed, but according to this investigation, no contamination has been detected in the soil at Rottumerplaat and it is believed that it could This is because the whale was still young and has barely been able to store cadmium in its body.

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