Vessel-whale collision events represented the ultimate cause of death for 21 (52.5%) of the 40 North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) necropsied between 1970 and December 2006. Injuries seen in vessel-struck whales fall into two distinct categories: 1) sharp trauma, often resulting from contact with the propeller, and 2) blunt trauma, presumably resulting from contact with a vessel's hull. This study analyzes four trauma cases that resulted from vessel-whale collisions, which together provide a framework for a more critical understanding of lethal blunt and sharp trauma resulting from vessel collisions with right whales. In case no. 1, contact with a propeller resulted in three deep lacerations. The animal survived acute trauma only to succumb nearly 14 years later when the lesions reopened and became infected. In case no. 2, anecdotal reports linked the laceration of large arteries of the peduncle and histologic evidence of perimortem trauma at a bone fracture site to vessel-whale collision trauma. Case no. 3 had a laceration of the oral rete and a fracture of the rostrum. Both of the areas displayed histologic evidence of perimortem blunt trauma. Finally, in case no. 4, an antemortem mandibular fracture, two additional skull fractures, and widespread hemorrhage were consistent with severe blunt trauma. Evidence from each case, including the timing of trauma relative to the time of death and identifying characteristics of both trauma types, are presented. Before this study, no detailed comparative analysis of trauma pathology that resulted from lethal interactions between vessels and right whales had been conducted. This study demonstrates the importance of detailed gross and histologic examination in determining the significance and timing of traumatic events. This work represents a new paradigm for the differential diagnosis of lethal sharp and blunt trauma in right whales hit by ships and will enhance the present understanding of the impact of anthropogenic mortality on this critically endangered species.
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Vol. 39 • No. 1