Chilean Mystery Blob Identified as Sperm Whale Skin

John Roach
for National Geographic News
August 25, 2003
A mysterious, 41-foot by 19-foot (12.4-meter by 5.4-meter) gelatinous
mass of flesh that washed ashore in southern Chile this June came from a
sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), not a giant octopus
(Octopus giganteus) as some sleuths suspected.

"Two independent DNA analyses confirmed the identification as belonging to a sperm whale," said Elsa Cabrera, director of the Center for Cetacean Conservation in Santiago, Chile.

The blob washed ashore on the beach of Pinuno, near Puerto Montt, on June 23. Cabrera and colleagues investigated the mass and made the initial conclusion it was of the wrong texture and smell to be a whale skin. The team suspected the peculiar smelling blob might be a giant octopus, a species only known from legend.

As images of the blob spread across the Internet, scientists from all corners of the world weighed in on the fleshy mass' identity.

Carlos Olavarria, a Chilean scientist currently pursuing a Ph.D. in population genetics and evolution at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, received e-mail news of the find from a friend. Olavarria said from the images alone he could not determine the blob's identity.

"I could not see any morphological structure that could identify it as any animal. Just…a couple of tentacle-like forms that I suppose led some people to think that it could be an octopus," he said, noting that he, too, initially considered the possibility.

Skin Samples

In early July, scientists from Chile's Museum of Natural History in Santiago analyzed the morphology, or form and structure, of a sample they collected from the beach in southern Chile and determined the blob was a sperm whale.

Cabrera and colleagues also sent skin samples to scientists around the world, including Auckland-based researcher Olavarria, to perform DNA analysis to ascertain the mysterious blob's true identity. Olavarria and Sidney Pierce, a marine biologist at the University of South Florida in Tampa, both concluded the mass of flesh belonged to a sperm whale.

Pierce suspected the blob was a whale skin from the outset of its discovery. Together with his colleagues, Pierce compared the most recent sample to those of other mysterious beachings his team had previously examined. He found that the blob "looked exactly like what we expected it to look like," he said.

Several other scientists have yet to announce their findings. But Cabrera said that the two independent DNA analyses showing the blob to be a sperm whale are sufficient to render the case closed.

"We feel very happy after this experience because it certainly helped millions of people understand a little bit more about the ocean life," she said. "We hope that all the scientists involved publish their results."

Floating Blubber

Steven Webster, a marine biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, thought that the blob was a whale skin when he first looked at the images and said he is not surprised by the results of the analysis.

"It seemed unlikely that another type of critter that size would have gone undetected this long," said Webster. "I'm pleased that my hunch was correct. But I also always like a surprise. A new squid species the size of a sperm whale would have been really neat."

Webster said he is asked to identify beached blobs quite frequently. Most are jellyfish and jellyfish relatives. Every few years, gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) and blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) wash ashore on the California coast.

"Beached decomposed portions of larger animals are not common, but they do occur every now and then," he said. "They often are the source of myths having to do with one sea monster or another."

Scientists suspect that the whale skin that washed ashore in Chile separated from the rest of the whale bone and muscle tissue as it decomposed. The mass of skin floated on the ocean surface until it drifted onto the beach.

Pierce said that sharks, bacteria, and other creatures devour most the whale meat, but leave the collagen layer of the blubber untouched. It is this layer that can wash ashore and look alien to the inexperienced eye.

"Usually a scientist shows up and says of course it's…whale blubber and covers it up. It gets bulldozed away and that's it," said Pierce.

Olavarria said this happens more frequently than people are aware, but that often the blobs are more readily identifiable as a whale. "In general people do not know so much about natural phenomena that occurs in nature," he said.

According to Webster, the interest generated by the Chilean sea blob highlights human fascination with the unknown and desire to discover giant monsters lurking in the depths of the seas.

"We like to hope there are some really awesome undiscovered critters lurking down there," he said. "Without doubt, there are millions of undiscovered species in the deep sea—it's the Earth's main address—but most of them, sad to say, are too small to fit the monster mold."

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