At the time of her discovery in late July, Hart, a master's degree candidate from Brea, Calif., was working on the St. Catherine's Island Sea Turtle Conservation Program. In her studies of sea turtles, Hart is collaborating with Mike Knell of Council Bluffs, Iowa. Knell also is a Tech paleontology graduate student. Their work augments studies of fossil sea turtles found in South Dakota.
Hart measured the 13-foot whale, photographed it and collected its skull for identification by Dr. James Mead at The Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History. He identified it as a Sowerby's beaked whale, probably a yearling female. The Smithsonian will retain the whale's skull for confirmation and to serve as a voucher specimen for this rare species' distribution.
Almost nothing is known about the natural history of the Sowerby's beaked whale. They reach a length of approximately 18 feet long, travel in pods of up to 10 and presumably eat small fish and squid.
Sowerbys are the most northerly distributed beaked whale, living in the North Atlantic, from Massachusetts to Labrador, eastward to Iceland, the British Isles and western Europe. This is only the thirteenth Sowerby's stranding documented in the western Atlantic. Prior to this, a stranding on the Gulf Coast of Florida was the only sighting in the temperate western Atlantic.
The St. Catherine's Island Sea Turtle Conservation Program is an example of Tech students combining classroom and real-world experiences to add to the body of scientific knowledge.