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Starving Sperm Whales? Stranded On Dutch and German Coasts

Jan 20, 2016 12:53 PM EST
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A dozen giant sperm whales died after washing up along the Dutch island of Texel and the German islands of Wangerooge and Helgoland this year. Experts say the whales seem to be either starving and disoriented. 

Whale strandings have always been a problem for Texel, an island off the northern coast of Holland, because the North Sea is extremely shallow and doesn't allow the animals to properly make use of their sonar. But this year is the first to see so many whales beached in German waters.

When whales are unable to use their sonar – the animals' method of navigation and hunting using reflected waves to locate distant objects and sense their shape and movement – they often become lost and exhausted. In this case, researchers say the "blinded whales" likely made a wrong turn into shallow waters, beached themselves, and died. 

Sperm whales are the largest toothed-whales on Earth, not to mention the largest toothed predator. They can grow up to 67 feet long and weigh over 50 tons. Beaching can be fatal for large whales because it causes fast and severe muscle damage and their blowholes, which they use to breathe, can get clogged with sand.

The two dead sperm whales that washed up on the German island of Wangerooge appeared to be starving. Dutch paleontologist Aart Walen explained that the contents of their stomachs contained only small pieces of squid. Normally, up to a hundred squid are found in the stomach of dead sperm whales.

Attempts to save the whales were made when they were initially found, but the efforts failed. The main concern now is removing the whales before gases created during decomposition cause the whales carcasses to rupture or explode. 

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