Hawksbill turtle record, Gonubie (East London) SA

A Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) was reported yesterday having washed up at Gonubie. It was retrieved today by the museum and a partial necropsy undertaken to determine whether there was any ingestion of marine debris – the result was negative. This critically endangered species occasionally visits our seas (east coast) but never breeds along our coast. The bill is strongly hooked (hence the name ‘hawksbill’) and the plates on the upper surface are imbricated (arranged so that they overlap like roof tiles) giving it the species name imbricata.

There has been an 80% decline in Hawksbill numbers over the past century. Only about 8 000 females worldwide nest every 2-3 years (about a 1 000 nesting annually) producing between 60-200 eggs. These turtles are particularly threatened by the wildlife trade as they are collected from the tropics for their colourful yellow and brown carapace plates that are used to make tortoiseshell items (‘bekko’” or ‘carey’) for ornaments and jewellery.

They can grow to 90 cm in length and the specimen pictured measured 40 cm with a width of 33 cm. The total length of the head measured 8 cm. Turtles have been around for more than 100 million years and sadly this record comes less than a week after World Turtle Day (May 23rd).

Gerhard Pretorius is thanked for reporting this find and Dean Brown is thanked for securing the specimen for the museum.

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Hickman’s River humpback whale stranding update

Sadly the 9.5 m humpback did not survive the night. Museum scientist Kevin Cole was on site at sunrise and found the animal had passed on.

Members of the public who assisted yesterday in trying to rescue the whale are thanked for their efforts. In particular, Deon Willmers and his son Storm and Keith Dunmore and his wife Brenda for being on site early to to keep the whale watered down and by covering the eyes to protect them from the sun. Jarrod Smith also assisted in keeping the whale cool until the museum arrived.

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Humpback whale stranding, Hickman’s River (East London)

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Humpback whale stranding, Kei Mouth (South Africa)

Yesterday museum scientist Kevin Cole went out to the small coastal town of Kei Mouth to sample a 12.3 m male humpback whale which had stranded during the night after being reported seen drifting live at 19h20 on Saturday 30th March 2019. Video footage revealed a very emaciated individual with labored breathing.

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Easily identified by the wing-like flippers (in this case measuring 3.67 m)  and a head comprising about 30% of the body length  with the upper surface of the snout, chin and mandibles  noticeably covered in raised tubercles which can present with a single hair.

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Baleen plates are attached to the upper jaw and humpback whales have an average of 325 plates in each series (both sides of the jaw with the longest measuring between 80-100 cm).

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Baleen plates still attached to the gum which has dislodged from the jaw

Key identification features for this species are the large flippers (in some cases reaching a length almost 1/3 the total body length of the animal), the dorsal fin set 2/3 back on the whale, the papillae on the rostrum and the scalloped trailing edge of the flukes (tail).

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Humpback whales move between the summer feeding grounds of the Antarctic to the winter breeding grounds further north (more tropical) passing the East London coast as the begin their migration in April (having reached the Knysna coast at this time).  These seasonal migrations are up to 16 000 km’s in range.

These whales can grow to a length of 15 m with females being larger than males.

As the whale decomposes and bloats there can be an expression of the genitalia in males as illustrated below (penis of the male humpback whale).

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They have a characteristic V-shaped bushy blow. Flipper slapping, breaching and lob tailing are important behavioral traits for communication. Diving can last for 3-15 minutes and sometimes up to 40 minutes reaching depths of 150 m.

Pictured below is the left eye of the male humpback whale (18 cm in length).

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Hundreds of whale lice were noted on the specimen (an external parasite). These little crustaceans feed on the skin of the whale and are mostly found in crevices in the folds of the skin. They live entirely on the whale and certain species only live on particular whale species such as the ones illustrated on this humpback whale.

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The stranded specimen also had three shark bites to the body (tail end). These were most probably inflicted while the ill, slow moving animal was still alive. They would not have been the cause of death.

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The length of the blow-hole was measured at 46 cm with a width of 24 cm (illustrated below).

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Blubber, skin and muscle samples were taken for further analysis as well as a sample of baleen. These will be sent to Dr Greg Hofmeyr at the Port Elizabeth Museum (Bayworld).

This is the second humpback whale stranding in the area within 6 months (the last being a short distance away at Cape Morgan). The stranding was reported to the museum by Mrs Barbara Strydom of Kei Mouth and Ms Siani Tinley of the Buffalo City Metro (Senior Manager, Zoological and Marine Services).

Mr Bryan Church (Strandloper Trail Manager) has been a great help in documenting the whale and assisting the museum in liaising with authorities at the site with regard to the disposal of the carcass. The Great Kei Municipality has the permitted authority to remove the carcass to be disposed of at a land-fill site.

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Museum scientist Kevin Cole points to one of three shark bite marks on the stranded humpback whale at Kei Mouth. The other two can be seen closer to the tail.

Reference: Whales and dolphins of the southern African subregion by Peter B. Best

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An interesting news snippet about a possible new species of killer whale

The following article was sourced from CBC News and published two days ago. Quite amazing that in this day and age a new species of killer whale may be confirmed!!

Scientists may have discovered a new killer whale

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Researchers waiting on DNA tests to confirm it’s not just a mutation

The Associated Press · Posted: Mar 07, 2019 5:25 PM ET | Last Updated: March 8

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A type D killer whale. Scientists are waiting for test results from a tissue sample, which could give them the DNA evidence to prove the new type is a distinct species. (Paul Tixier/CEBC CNRS/MNHN Paris/Associated Press)

For decades, there were tales from fishermen and tourists, even lots of photos, of a mysterious killer whale that just didn’t look like all the others. But scientists had never seen one.

Now they have.

An international team of researchers found a couple dozen distinctly different orcas roaming in the oceans off southern Chile in January. Scientists are waiting for DNA tests from a tissue sample but think they may have found a distinct species.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration felt confident enough to trumpet the discovery of the long rumoured killer whale on Thursday. Some outside experts were more cautious, acknowledging the whales are different, but saying they’d wait for the test results to answer the species question.

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This composite photo shows the potentially new type D killer whale, left, and the more commonly recognizable on the right. (Paul Tixier/CEBC CNRS/MNHN Paris/Associated Press, Chris Park/Associated Press)

“This is the most different looking killer whale I’ve ever seen,” said Robert Pitman, an NOAA marine ecologist in San Diego. He was part of the team that spotted the orcas off Cape Horn at the tip of South America.

How different? The whale’s signature large white eye patch is tiny on these new guys, barely noticeable. Their heads are a bit more rounded and less sleek than normal killer whales and their dorsal fins are narrower and pointed.

They likely mostly eat fish, not marine mammals like seals, as other killer whales do, Pitman said. Fishermen have complained about how good they are at poaching off fishing lines, snatching a 200-pound fish away.

Pitman said they are so different they probably can’t breed with other killer whales and are likely a new species. At six to 7½ metres, they are slightly smaller than most killer whales. In the Southern Hemisphere, killer whales are considered all one species, classified in types A through C. This one is called type D or subantarctic killer whale.

Michael McGowen, marine mammal curator at the Smithsonian, said calling it a new species without genetic data may be premature. Still, he said, “I think it’s pretty remarkable that there are still many things out there in the ocean like a huge killer whale that we don’t know about.”

I guess I know how Ahab felt, but for a good reason.– Robert Pitman, marine ecologist

Scientists have heard about these distinctive whales ever since a mass stranding in New Zealand in 1955. Scientists initially thought it could be one family of killer whales that had a specific mutation, but the January discovery and all the photos in-between point to a different type, Pitman said.

He said they are hard to find because they live far south and away from shore, unlike most killer whales.

“The type D killer whale lives in the most inhospitable waters on the planet. It’s a good place to hide.”

Pitman got interested in this mysterious killer whale when he was shown a photograph in 2005. When he and others decided to go find them, they followed the advice and directions of South American fishermen, who had seen the whales poaching their fish.

After weeks of waiting, about 25 of the whales came up to the scientists’ boat, looking like they expected to be fed. Equipment problems prevented the scientists from recording enough of the whale songs, but they used a crossbow to get a tissue sample. Pitman said the whales are so big and their skin so tough that it didn’t hurt them, saying the arrow “is like a soda straw bouncing off a truck tire.”

Pitman said he’ll never forget Jan. 21 when he finally saw his first and then a bunch of the type D orcas.

“For 14 years I was looking for these guys. I finally got to see them,” Pitman said.

He acknowledged that he did sound like the revenge-seeking captain in the classic novel Moby-Dick.

“I guess I know how Ahab felt, but for a good reason,” Pitman said.

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Atalaia shipwreck (1647) potsherd found at Cefane River, East London

Young Cole Hubbard’s find was written up in the Daily Dispatch newspaper by Madeleine Chaput.

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The Martaban storage jar sherd found by Cole Hubbard measures just over 15 cm at its longest end. Photo Kevin Cole ELM

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The recent find of Martaban pottery displayed with other similar pieces from the Atalaia shipwreck curated in the museum collection. Photo Kevin Cole ELM

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Amalinda Nature Reserve -a tarnished biodiversity jewel of East London

Many years ago the museum tried to negotiate the use of the Amalinda Nature Reserve for outsourced environmental education initiatives realising that the relevant authorities were not committed to the long term management of a proclaimed open space.

The reserve was home to a thriving fish hatchery (one of the top in the country at the time), a plethora of large mammal species and a unique refuge for a lot of the indigenous plant and animal species that have occurred in the region for thousands of years. Closely situated to many hundreds of school learners, particularly from more impoverished schools, it was ideally placed to service an experience for many learners who would have to travel hundreds of kilometers to gain access to other nature reserves with similar game and flora.

When the transition of Cape Nature proclaimed reserves was handed over to the then Eastern Cape Parks (now the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency) the Amalinda Nature Reserve was ‘abandoned’ and treated as a public open space by all authorities concerned and not as a provincially gazetted reserve with due legislation implemented to protect the biodiversity of the area. This alone was a traversity when the pressure to protect open spaces was becoming even more pertinent with massive peri-urban development.

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Daily Dispatch article by John Harvey published on Saturday 9 February 2019

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