A beached whale is no great cause for alarm for most of us; not least the scientific community, who rather delight in the chance to get some gloved-hands-on experience with animals which are far too big to capture for study. In 2015 however, more than 300 baleen whale carcasses were discovered beached on the shores of a remote fjord in Patagonia, Chile, providing an enterprising researcher a very unique opportunity.
The red death
Further investigation revealed them to be 337 sei whales, an endangered subspecies, and that they had been stricken down by a deadly algae bloom called ‘red tide,’ making it the largest mass stranding in history.
“In the deep sea, a single whale carcass is a huge event,” McConnell told National Geographic. “They can ignite these flourishes of life and feed a diverse array of species for a long time, but nobody really knows what happens on beaches.”
When a whale dies in the ocean, its body sinks all the way to the seafloor – triggering an explosion of life and activity. Knowing this, Katie McConnell, a marine biologist at Oregon State University, employed time-lapse photography to capture a different kind of explosion, one involving hundreds of carcasses and land animals rather than ocean-dwellers.
Katie and her team of researchers set up 16 cameras which documented the decay over 2 years, starting from fresh, bloated, carcasses, to little more than spare ribs, in order to gain a better understanding of how such a massive biological recycling event affected the Patagonian landscape.
The five stages of decomposition
The baleen whale can grow to 64 feet long, and weigh as much as 50 tons, so it goes without saying that every link in the food chain was invited to clean up the mess. Birds, bacteria, snails, crabs, other shellfish and invertebrates all had their fill during different stages of decomposition.
McConnell hopes the data gathered from the time-lapse project will go a long way in creating a forensic-reference guide for identifying causes and times of death of carcasses in future beaching events.