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Carcass found on Maui could offer insight on whale species

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WAILUKU >> Scientists hope the pygmy sperm whale that washed up dead on a Maui beach can help them learn more about the elusive creatures.

The cause of death remains undetermined for the nearly half-ton whale, which was found Wednesday on Keawakapu Beach, the Maui News reported.

Scientists are still waiting on the analysis of tissue samples sent to labs following a Friday necropsy, or animal autopsy, at Hawaii Pacific University.

The necropsy revealed that the adult male had a broken jaw but was in “good nutritional condition” with lots of food in its stomach, said Kristi West, an associate biology professor at the university.

“It wasn’t an incredibly sick animal,” she said. She suspects the broken jaw was caused by “some sort of trauma.”

The necropsy is only the beginning of what West called “Whale CSI,” which will continue after tissue samples have been analyzed.

But for West the process isn’t just about determining a cause of death.

“It’s sad that this whale died,” she said, but “we see this as an opportunity to learn about the live counterparts.”

Not much is known about the species, whose members West called “very elusive” and shy. They aren’t well observed because the whales dive deep when spotted and can secrete a dark brown liquid, like an octopus.

Based on food found in their stomachs, it appears the pygmy sperm whale can dive to depths of 2,500 to 4,000 feet.

Humpback whales, said West, dive to only 300 feet and “don’t even compare.”

West said she and other researchers “are really excited” about the Maui whale because its full belly might help them learn more about the species.

Pygmy sperm whales have teeth only on their lower jaws and eat mostly cephalopods — octopus and squid — but also some deep-water fish and shrimp.

The whales have a life span of about 20 years. They travel in groups of one to three, although migration patterns are unknown.

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