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WEEK TWELVE - Dolphin Autopsy

March 29, 2017

     **Warning: this post contains mildly graphic images and descriptions. To bypass them and read about cute lemurs instead, click here.**


     Lately, I've been on a health kick. Through a combo of diet and exercise, I'm determined to drop several pounds before I leave St. Catherines. My preferred forms of calorie burning are running (I even joined the Hogwarts Running Club) and yoga, both of which are just lovely to do on the beaches here. I was training for a 10k yesterday morning when I came across my new roommate tooling around South Beach on a Gator (the vehicle, not the animal). He'd spotted a beached dolphin about a hundred yards away and was on his way to alert the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. They have a special division for this sort of thing. They call it a "marine mammal stranding." 


     She'd been dead for a few days. DNR sent a man named Trip to perform the autopsy. When they picked me up this morning, the back of the four-person Gator was loaded with equipment: a couple of buckets, a pair of galoshes, and a large orange pack labelled with, "Georgia DNR Nongame Marine Mammal Stranding Kit" and a phone number. I'd never even touched a dolphin before, let alone dissected one. I wasn't sure what my reaction might be, but I wasn't about to miss such a rare opportunity. Her body was bloated and her eyes were swollen like she'd been boxing, but there hadn't been much decay otherwise. Birds and crabs hadn't gotten to her yet. From her teeth and body size, Trip could tell that she was an adult. Even I could tell that she was female. I felt her skin and it was like stroking a bald tire.


     It might have been my first rodeo, but it surely wasn't Trip's. Today's body is the twelfth washed onto Georgia's shores this year. Typically, DNR sees around thirty-five to forty such strandings annually. Around seventy-five percent of these mammals are bottlenose dolphins and the rest are small whales and other dolphin species. Each time, Georgia DNR sends someone out to determine cause of death, take samples, and record data.  I was lucky to be the one recording today's measurements and observations, as one of Trip's aides. The first thing I did was take off my shoes and socks, roll up my pant legs, and head down to the water to fill the buckets. Then, we rinsed off the body. I wrote down numbers as he and my roommate used a measuring tape to take her length and felt inside her mouth to count her teeth. Twenty-two top left, twenty-three top right, twenty-three lower left, twenty-two top right. They rolled her over and checked for damage from propellers or nets. Then, it was time to start cutting.

      Trip made cuts through skin and a layer of blubber In three places down her body. He measured how thick the fat was and determined that she had been a little undernourished. In addition to my own camera, I was holding his camera, a Sharpie, a clipboard, and some sample bags. Because I kept my hands clean, I could open baggies, jot notes, and snap photos, thankfully managing not to drop anything. I watched, a little nervous, as the two men peeled back the skin on her left side, exposing a wall of pink muscle. Trip cut off her flipper and I could see the ball of bone that made up part of her shoulder. The scapula (shoulder blade) was visible just under the muscle. Pressing on her side, he felt for broken ribs and abnormalities. A few more cuts and I could see the enormous muscle that runs along the top of the body, controlling the tail. Dolphins can even use this muscle to help them with their breathing. The next part to go was the left portion of her ribcage. 


     I was impressed with my own knowledge of mammal anatomy; I was able to identify nearly all of the internal organs, save a few glands and the spleen. Each piece was laid down, photographed, and examined for foreign objects, odd colors, and anything out of the ordinary. I wrote down what I was told to and labeled bags to be taken back to the lab. There was blood, dark pools of it. It was almost comical the way Trip unraveled the intestines and spread them out on the sand. The most interesting organ was the reniculate kidney. It's made up of a clump of tiny little kidneys, each capable of filtering and processing. It's different than a human (or any other terrestrial mammal) because it needs to filter so much salt water. I took photos of the heart, the giant liver, the lung, the spleen, and the uterus. Aside from an unidentified substance in her lung, nothing was abnormal. In the end, the most likely culprit for her demise was old age. 


     Through it all, I found that I wasn't faint or nauseous, even at the smell. Being a vegetarian, I don't often visit the butcher's shop. Not being a med student, I haven't seen any human cadaver dissections. So, I surprised myself. I took fifty-five pictures of the procedure and just before writing this article, I was going over them all while munching on a bowl of kale. It's the end of my third month on the island, two weeks shy of the halfway mark. I'm learning about all kinds of animals and organisms, history and geology. Writing this blog prompts all sorts of research and critical thinking. But, it appears that not only am I learning about the island, I'm also learning about myself...and just when I thought I had that all figured out.

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