Not long into the new year of 2016, tragedy struck when a female killer whale was found dead on the shore at Crossapol on the Isle of Tiree. She was a member of the small pod that has lived off the west coast of Scotland since the 1980s; this was Lulu.
The West Coast pod is the only resident group of killer whales in the seas around the British Isles. Lulu was named when she first appeared among them in 1995 and remained with the pod until she died. Now there are only eight whales left in the pod and no calves have ever been spotted, making this population likely to become extinct.
John Coe, Moneypenny and Lulu in 2014; one of the last times that Lulu was seen alive. Image courtesy of the HWDT
A post mortem examination carried out by the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme sadly discovered that the primary cause of death was entanglement in fishing ropes. Further investigation also revealed that Lulu was probably around 20 years old, so an adult female, but her ovaries showed that she had never produced a calf.
Weeks later we would learn that Lulu was also one of the most contaminated marine mammals ever to have been recorded. Her tissues contained highly concentrated levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), more than 100 times the level at which they are known to affect the health of marine mammals. These toxic chemicals will have undoubtedly impacted on Lulu’s ability to reproduce.
Her skeleton is now held in the museum marine mammal collection along with those of other killer whales. It has already been used for a number of different research projects and even made an appearance on BBC’s The One Show.
The results of those and other research projects will help us to understand how killer whales live and what can be done to help conserve our vulnerable Scottish population, as well as other killer whales around the world. We may even find out if Lulu was a Scottish pod member since birth or if she came from an entirely different population.
Lulu’s postcranial skeleton at the National Museums Collection Centre
Her vertebrae have been sampled for stable isotopes (see the small hole centre)
We are grateful to the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund for their financial support, which enabled us to collect Lulu.
You can see Lulu’s skull and teeth (pictured above) in the New to the National Collections display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh until 24 February 2019.