ANCHORAGE - The unusually swollen tongue of a dead humpback whale may indicate that it perished after colliding with a blunt object in the waters of Southeast Alaska, scientists said Monday.
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The humpback, an endangered species, also suffered heavy internal bleeding and bruising under its right pectoral fin, also suggestive of blunt-force trauma, said Aleria Jensen, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Alaska.
Scientists believe some sort of impact forced air into the tongue of the 15-year-old male humpback, said Jensen, a marine mammal stranding coordinator for the agency. They had initially guessed that the swelling indicated a severe infection.
"It's certainly possible that it was a ship strike, but that's still inconclusive," Jensen said.
A tour boat based in Juneau first reported sighting the whale on July 7 as it struggled to swim with a giant inflated tongue. Two state ferries also reported the sighting.
"When we flew out to find it, it was on its side struggling to get its blowhole above water," Jensen said. "Its tongue was the size of a small car."
The 40-foot whale was found dead on Wednesday after tides washed it onto a steep rocky beach on the western shoreline of Admiralty Island south of Juneau.
Scientists tied the animal to some trees by its fluke and performed a necropsy on Friday, Jensen said.
They have collected skin for genetic samples and blubber for contaminants. They also delved into the stomach cavity and retrieved samples from its intestines, liver and kidney tissue, Jensen said.
Scientist are waiting for the whale to decompose and be eaten by scavengers so they can check for any broken bones.
The whale had been observed by scientists before and was given the number 1211, according to Jan Straley, an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Southeast.
It was first seen in Sitka Sound in 1992 and again near Juneau in 2001. The last sighting was July 2004 in Tenakee Inlet, according to records from Straley's lab.
Jensen said analysis will probably take several weeks.
"There's never any guarantee that we can find the cause of death, but that's always our goal," she said.