Fin whale founded stranded in Italy: how Plastic Busters MPAs participate in the necropsy and why

The Plastic Busters MPAs group of the University of Siena (UNISI), coordinated by Professor Maria Cristina Fossi, is involved in the marine litter and ecotoxicological analysis of the fin whale.

On the evening of Thursday, 14 January 2021, passers-by walking along the dock of the port of Sorrento witnessed a fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) in difficulty in the port area. A few hours later, the lifeless body of a large whale, almost 20 metres long, one of the largest ever found stranded in the Mediterranean, was found at a depth of 15 metres.

The Cetacean Emergency Response Team (CERT) of the University of Padua was immediately alerted; all the procedures were activated to carry out the necropsy and to inform the national experts and researchers usually involved in cetacean studies. UNISI, Plastic Busters MPAs’ partner, coordinated by Professor Maria Cristina Fossi, was in charge of the marine litter content and ecotoxicological analysis.

The Plastic Busters MPAs team participated in the necropsy held in Naples (where the whale was moved to by sea from Sorrento) in collaboration with many other institutions, since these stranded cetaceans offer researchers the opportunity to sample and analyse organs and tissues that cannot be obtained on free-ranging animals.

The contents of the gastrointestinal tract were sampled and they will be examined in the coming days in UNISI’s labs to determine the animal’s diet. An analysis of ingested marine litter, plastics and microplastics in particular, will be also conducted.

UNISI’s Plastic Busters MPAs group, together with CERT and the Italian National Reference Centre for Diagnostic Activities on Stranded Marine Mammals (C.Re.Di.Ma) is working to develop a shared protocol for a simultaneous analysis of pathogens and correlated diseases, diet and marine litter contents in the gastrointestinal tracts of stranded cetaceans. In addition, the analysis of plastic tracers (i.e. phthalates) will be performed on the different tissues sampled (i.e. blubber, muscle, liver).

The results will help us to understand whether marine litter was ingested and whether it was one of the causes of death.

In the next few days, UNISI will start analysing these samples. The results will help us to understand whether marine litter was ingested and whether it was one of the causes of death. The results will also help us comprehend how the concentrations of plastic tracers vary in the various organs. Data obtained in this way will be used by the Plastic Busters MPAs project to assess the health status of Mediterranean fin whales and cetaceans in general.

The journey of a skin biopsy: from the sea to the lab in order to define the impact of marine litter on endangered species

Last year, we took you on a digital journey to our partner UNISI’s laboratory, to discover how researchers define the impact of marine litter on Mediterranean cetaceans. Enter their lab here

Read more about the fin whale here.