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Whale Secrets Revealed

SDSU researchers get a rare chance to dissect the head of a grey whale.
Graduate Biology students Sarah Stachura Kienle (left), Nick Zellmer, and Biology major Will Itie (far right) lift the gray whale head onto the dissecting table.
Graduate Biology students Sarah Stachura Kienle (left), Nick Zellmer, and Biology major Will Itie (far right) lift the gray whale head onto the dissecting table.

Whale Research - contains graphic images

The grey whale head is inspected prior to dissection
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Inspection of the Head
The grey whale head is inspected prior to dissection
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A team of San Diego State University researchers recently performed a rare outdoor dissection of a baby whale’s head.

The dissection, led by a team of students and professors specializing in the anatomy of modern and extinct marine mammals, has become beneficial to both the scientific research and the SDSU community.

In the span of three days, students, faculty and staff witnessed the dissection in the open area between SDSU Life Sciences buildings.

“It’s an exciting opportunity, and a lot of people come by curious,” said Jessica Martin, a graduate student who worked on the dissection. “The dissection being open for all to watch has been a great educational opportunity for all of SDSU.”

From Moss Landing to San Diego

The female calf died not long after being found in early January, abandoned and malnourished in the California costal town of Moss Landing.

Transported 450 miles south, and kept frozen at the San Diego Natural History museum, the calf’s head was brought to SDSU in April for further study.

Research

With limited knowledge about the cranial anatomy and musculature of grey whales, researchers are interested in different regions of the head — especially areas that demonstrate how baleen whales, a suborder of grey whales, hear and eat.

“It’s surprising...you would think we would  know a lot about whales but we know less about their anatomy just because they are logistically very hard to study,” said Annalisa Berta, SDSU professor of biology and project leader.

Researchers from across the nation also participated in the dissection, including Joy Reidenberg, a professor of medical education at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, and Lawrence Witmer, a professor of anatomy at Ohio State University.

Students expressed enthusiasm about the unique opportunity. 

“We all share the same sentiment and we all feel the same way every time we find something new," said biology junior Mary Chocas. "No matter if you have a Ph.D like Dr. Berta, are an undergrad like me or a master’s student like Jessica or Sarah, we’re all excited about this project. This has never been done before and is completely unique, completely revolutionary."

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