Three University of South Carolina Beaufort biology students have helped respond to three strandings in the past two weeks -- one dolphin and two pilot whales -- and viewed in real life the bones, muscles and organs they've been studying in textbooks.
"It is sad, but at the same time it's interesting. Not many people get to see a whale that close," said senior Marvin Brown.
Brown and seniors Rebecca Rawson and Steven Vega have participated in necropsies, or animal autopsies, alongside National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials.
It's not yet clear what has caused the strandings, or if the strandings are connected. The dolphin was found Dec. 1 at Mitchelville Beach on Hilton Head Island. The pilot whales were stranded late last week off Hunting Island and along the Story River on Fripp Island.
Rawson said parasites were found in the whales' lungs and stomachs, but that's not unusual.
Results from tissue samples of organs were still pending Monday, NOAA marine biologist Wayne McFee said.
McFee said students occasionally participate in the necropsies, but they're not usually undergraduates, he said.
"We like to have help, for sure," he said. "When you've got such a large animal, it's good to have as many hands as possible."
The partnership with USCB students is recent. Professor Eric Montie worked with McFee at NOAA in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In the past year, the two began to talk about how USCB students could help.
Rawson, Vega and Brown have all taken classes with Montie and volunteered to help with strandings.
Montie said his students will continue to help by taking measurements of the animals and notes during the necropsies. The students also are working to discover, based on dorsal-fin identification, if the stranded dolphin was a resident of local waters.
Montie said he hopes the experience will boost students' understanding of the marine life they have studied in classrooms and textbooks.
Vega said the largest animal he had dissected before encountering the dolphin and whales was a foot-long squid. Both he and Rawson marveled at the size of the larger animals' organs.
"When you see a figure in a book, you just see the bones," Vega said. "When you're up close, you get to see the connective tissue and musculature around it. It's a layered thing, but when you look at it in books, you forget that because you just see the one layer."
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Related content: Pilot whale beaches, dies at Hunting Island; Dec. 6, 2012