When a dead blue whale washed ashore in Canada scientists finally got to see what the heart of the planet’s largest animal looked like
As the largest animal to have ever lived, the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) can also be expected to have some record-breaking internal organs.
Tales of its heart being as big as a car, with the aorta (its main artery) large enough for a human to swim through abound, but as finding intact specimens to research is rare, the truth has been difficult to find out.
So when a dead blue whale washed ashore in Newfoundland, Canada, experts saw a valuable opportunity.
A team from the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) was sent to dissect the 76.5ft (23.3m) blue whale, which had died after becoming trapped in ice.
“We had to get the chest cavity opened to expose the heart and then get in there and free the heart up from all of the surrounding tissues, getting in with what was left of the lungs and blood, pretty much up to my waist,” explains Jacqueline Miller, a mammalogy technician from the ROM.
“It took four of us to push the heart out through a window we’d made between the ribs and the side of the chest cavity.”
The organ that they retrieved can be seen in the video clip above, taken from Big Blue Live, a new series coming soon to BBC One in the UK and PBS in the US.
“I was expecting something the size of a car, but found a heart more like the size of maybe a small golf cart or circus bumper car for two,” Ms Miller says.
The aorta was also discovered to be slightly smaller than it is reputed to be, probably capable of fitting a human head inside.
But at 28st 4lb (180kg) it was still hefty and the ROM team used about 1,000 gallons of formaldehyde, which stops tissue from decomposing any further, to begin the preservation process.
“To our knowledge this is the first blue whale heart to be anatomically preserved for exhibit and study. People are always curious how big it is, and if it is the same as our heart, structurally,” Ms Miller says.
The blue whale heart, along with the skeleton of the animal it came from, will eventually be put on display at the museum.
The team are also working with Dr Robert Henry and Dr Paul Nader, two anatomy specialists from Lincoln Memorial University, Tennessee, US, to properly document the whale.
“The blue whale represents the extreme upper limit of size and physiology, and its behaviour and physiological tolerances should be accordingly affected,” Ms Miller says.
“Anatomically, not a lot has been published about the blue whale heart. We’d also like to have an answer for our visitors when they ask ‘how big is it’?”