A head up on whale research

The Portland State Department of Biology received a special delivery yesterday: the giant frozen head of a dead whale.

The head, which ended up behind the Peter Stott Center because it was too big to fit through the doors of Science Building 2, belonged to a rare Baird’s beaked whale, discovered dying on the beach in Seaside, Ore., a year ago.

“We haven’t had very many [beaked whales] on our coast, ever,” Portland State biology professor Debbie Duffield said.

The beaked whale, which can reach 12 tons in weight and over 30 feet in length, typically sticks to waters off the coast of southern California or Japan, but has been known to travel as far north as the Bering Sea.

Duffield is a coordinator of the Northwest Marine Mammal Stranding Network for northern Oregon, which studies the causes for beached marine animals.

“Our job is to figure out why they died,” Duffield said.

After this particular specimen died, scientists began performing a necropsy to try to determine the cause of death. The cause has not yet been determined, but students will continue to look for clues.

The head was separated from the body and packed in Styrofoam and frozen. It was then sent to Dr. Ted Cranford at San Diego State University in California. Cranford performed CAT scans on the head to study the whale’s echo location system – the use of clicks and pulses of sound used to navigate with little or no sight.

Now that the giant cranium has come to PSU, biology students plan to remove the bones and echo location center from the head to continue their research.

Students spent the afternoon yesterday carefully carving away the layers of plastic wrap and Styrofoam encasing the frozen head, enduring the distinct fishy stench wafting from their specimen.

Eventually, the skull will most likely be included in the Biology department’s Vertebrate Biology Museum in Science Building 2, which already features over 70 articulated skeletons of birds, mammals and rare northwest whales.