What can we learn from the skeleton of a Pygmy Sperm Whale?

In our nature center, there hangs a skeleton that provides for a lot of interesting questions and conversations with nature center visitors.

Affectionately named Squirt by former island naturalist Arla, the male pygmy sperm whale washed up on Dewees Island’s south beach on June 11, 2001.  According to the Post and Courier, Federal biologist Wayne McFee necropsied the whale on the beach and found he had heart disease, cardiomyopathy. “The majority of adult pygmy sperm whales we see (stranded on beaches) have it,” said McFee, research wildlife biologist with the National Ocean Service in Charleston.

Necropsies are always fascinating: I am fortunate to have been part of several on our beach including this dolphin stranding in 2009. We had a dolphin strand on the south beach again this summer, an adult female with a fairly high level of decomposition. Megan Krzewinski, the Marine Mammal Stranding Technician at NOAA National Ocean Service, came to process the animal with the assistance of our sea turtle interns. They look for obvious signs of mortality and take tissue samples.


When they are finished, they’ll let us know if there is a clear cause of death. This female had blood and fluid in her airways but the immediate cause of death was unknown.  Staff used the backhoe to bury the carcass so that natural processes could continue.


In the case of the pygmy sperm whale, the autopsy is online here: the male died with cardiomyopathy, but the cause of that condition was unclear. 

Once the necropsy on Squirt was done, residents buried the carcass on the beach with plans to dig up the carcass and reassemble at a future date. My understanding was that there was a big celebration and an “unveil the whale” t-shirt as they launched him to his new spot above the nature center (which has moved more than once since then). I’m excited to learn more about the exhumation and re-assembly process for Squirt, our nature center friend.  If you’re an owner who was here 20 years ago and might have photos of this, we’d love to check them out!