The exploding Taiwanese sperm whale


.... but the whale had been sitting around, decomposing, for several days...


Pity the person who came back to collect their parked scooter at the end of the day...

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Isn't it a bit unusual that it was the dorsal side of the whale that ruptured?

By Anomalocaris (not verified) on 01 Apr 2009 #permalink

Boy, that one must have been hard to explain to the insurance company. I can well imagine the phone conversation: "Yes, the scooter was parked safely at the side of the road when it was inundated with about half a ton of decaying guts from a whale. (...) Yes, in the middle of the city. (...) Well, the whale was just riding along on his flatbed trailer and (click!) Hello? Hello?"

I don't know, but it might have something to do with the loading process - seems like the whale ruptured at about the point at which one of the crane cables was looped around the cadaver, perhaps that had weakened that spot.

By Phillip IV (not verified) on 02 Apr 2009 #permalink

That sperm whale must have eaten too meny giant squid's!

By Zach Hawkins (not verified) on 02 Apr 2009 #permalink

Did they actually weigh the animal or just estimate it? Going by Wood's figures of 18 m/53 tonne and 16 m/40 tonne whales weighed in their entirety, this one should have clocked in at about 30-33.

Indeed, all those guts exploding out of the dorsal surface of the whale -- with enough force to make it across the street -- does look very suspicious. I guess the rupture is a little behind the last rib, but still. How well documented is this?

By the way, sperm-whale mandibles are lame. The whales may be bigger than pliosaurs, but they're nowhere near as bad-ass.

Cameron: it occurred to me when I was uploading the images (all of which are powerpoint slides again) that 50 tons looked way too high - I had the recent debate about brachiosaurs on my mind at the time. I don't know where the 50 ton estimate came from: I suspect someone (not me) looked in a book to see how much a 15 m whale might weigh.

Mike: yes, sperm whale are less badass. But then that's what you get when one group goes towards biting squidgy things and another develops a habit of ripping giant vertebrates limb from limb. As we all know, pliosaurs had super-powers and were capable of biting chunks out of granite and so on.

Why cows, sheep, deer, birds and more mundane creatures don't explode?

Responses to whales across culture:

Taiwan- Find dead, beached whale. Attempt to move the whale across town in order to dissect and preserve it. Build-up of gasses causes the whale to explode in the middle of town.

America- Find dead, beached whale. Pack whale full of dynamite. Whale is exploded. Chunks of blubber rain down upon the surrounding area. (see-

I just watched a documentary on this the other week. While scrolling through the programming the listing for "The exploding whale" caught my eye. Actually I think I may have said "Oh hell YEAH!" Anyway...didn't they confirm that the whale was a victim of a ship collision and that the broken bones, damaged flesh and such along with the accumulation of gasses and blood had caused a time-bomb. Then the stress of being strapped down and jostled around caused the rupture. I can't even begin to imagine the horror of any pedestrian who thought it would be cool to snap a pic of a whale in downtown Taiwan...only to be covered in a blast of entrails.


By the way, sperm-whale mandibles are lame. The whales may be bigger than pliosaurs, but they're nowhere near as bad-ass.

If jaw morphology is the measure of bad-assed-ness, pliosaurs have nuthin' on moray eels.

Why cows, sheep, deer, birds and more mundane creatures don't explode?

Ranchers have told me cattle, deer, raccoon, and skunk carcasses sometimes (not often) do explode. No idea why though.

@ llewelly Maybe it's the combination of teenagers and fireworks?

By Anomalocaris (not verified) on 02 Apr 2009 #permalink

Moral eels

What's the moray of that story?

The plesiosaur-moray connection:
Muraenosaurus Seeley 1874 from the Callovian Oxford Clay Formation translates as "moray lizard". Shame it hasn't got the protrudable jaws to go with the name, but there we go.

By Mark Evans (not verified) on 02 Apr 2009 #permalink

Sperm whales may have less cool teeth... but pliosaurs came nowhere close to having 18 foot long jaws =D
Oh, and if you ascribe to Jurassic Fight Club, pliosaurs also can't liquefy the internal organs of their prey. That, and killer whales don't need to get that big... they're just intelligent, hunt in packs, and take down things like fin whales.

Often when in the field I've come across cows with an 'ejecta blanket' of gut residue grass/vegetation that spreads out from a presumed rupture in the gut; these ejecta blankets of gut residue can go for about 2 meters, and often go uphill. I'm not sure if it is from rupture of the carcass that causes this.

The expansion of the body is caused by the buildup of gases during the decay process; if I remember correctly, the internal pressure effectively 'closes' the esophagus and anus, trapping the gases inside. The internal pressure is great enough to bloat the carcass so that all the legs/appendages point outward, often raising the legs off the ground.

In the cases of dead whales, a rupture through the dorsal region is very odd; usually, according to Schafer (1972), usually the whale will float upside down, and the ventral side will become enlarged due to the gases. Then (my favorite part), as muscles and connective tissue start to decay, the skeleton will disarticulate, and collect in a disarticulated mass inside the body, so that it is effectively a big inflated bag filled with bones. As soon as the carcass ruptures, these bones can spill out (one or several at a time) and rain down to the seafloor.


Galaxy Quest?

The news reports I saw insisted that at least one kind of pliosaur could bite through a Humvee. They didn't say that about Megalodon sharks. Probably the sharks failed to re-develop a snack industry after K-T. What can a moray bite through?

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 02 Apr 2009 #permalink

Zach's quote is bothering me.. not The Fly (right?), Galaxy Quest, any of the Star Trek movies, Critters... Hmm.

Nathan: when (smug grin) I turned down a TV news interview on 'predator x' (groan), I was sent a press release that said how new work had shown that the pliosaur had a bite force exceeding that of Tyrannosaurus. If true, this would give the animal the strongest bite of any tetrapod. I haven't heard any more on this, nor does there seem to be a published paper. Does anyone know any more?

That they're calling it Predator X implies to me there's no paper, because it takes a paper to give it a proper name.

All I have got is the name Joern Hurum, "an associate professor of vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum in the University of Oslo". Greg Erickson, an "evolutionary biologist from Florida State University" seems to have been involved. Don't you see these guys all the time? Drop them an e-mail.

I still want to see a cage match between Predatorex and Megalodon.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 02 Apr 2009 #permalink

The no-prize is a reference to old (and maybe new for all I know) Marvel comic books letter-columns.

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 02 Apr 2009 #permalink meant that, earlier, quote. I fail. Carry on.

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 02 Apr 2009 #permalink

Suppose that great white shark bites dead whale about to explode. Could the shark be flung into the air backwards?


For more definitive information on predator x
go to

which is the website of the norwegian researchers who excavated the various pliosaurs, plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs that have been found in Svalbard over the last few years.


Boesse quoting Schafer reminded me of a road-killed echidna I picked up one time. I guess it had been well mashed by a truck (possibly simultaneously taking revenge on the tires) but the skin is so tough that it was perfectly intact, and inflated to basketball size, clawed legs sticking out orthogonal to the surface, and snout smashed but plugged by tongue protruding to its full extent. It didn't even smell much, so I thought it must be fairly fresh. The mistake was cutting into it in a populated area. No explosion, but the backyard was far too small to contain the noxious gas cloud. No whales, thank you.

By John Scanlon FCD (not verified) on 02 Apr 2009 #permalink

Robert, pliosaurs had true badass jaws, at least those which were specialized macropredators. Here at Tübingen there is the famous skeleton of Liopleurodon ferox, and even given the fact that its size is not much over 4m, its already a true monster. There is also a much larger isolated pliosaur tooth in the collection of the paleontological institute of Tübingen, which is about as long as a hand. But some days ago, when I was at the NHM of Berlin, I saw a monster-sized pliosaur tooth which was bigger than a banana. The beast which possesed this tooth was surely gigantic. But it was still small compared to those still unnamed species which was found at Aramberri. The famous "monster of Aramberri" was already about the size of Predator X, if not bigger, but still a juvenile. Furthermore it showed tooth-marks of much bigger pliosaurs, one which was healed and another in the skull which was most probably lethal. The Aramberri monster was 15-18m in length, already the length of a bull sperm whale, but adults were about one third bigger, so we had a species of super-sized pliosaurs whose teeth were well bigger than your forearm. Even if the largest ones of them did not have mandibles in the 5-6m range, their heads were surely already quite big, and even Predator X would be dwarfed by them. I once made weight calculations for pliosaurs, based on the articulated skeleton at Tübingen. I can´t remember the exact dates, but in any case those monster pliosaurs surely even exceeded most bull sperm whales in weight.

seabold replied:

I just watched a documentary on this the other week. While scrolling through the programming the listing for "The exploding whale" caught my eye... didn't they confirm that the whale was a victim of a ship collision and that the broken bones, damaged flesh and such along with the accumulation of gasses and blood had caused a time-bomb. Then the stress of being strapped down and jostled around caused the rupture.

Yes, my wife Bev and I watched that same documentary a few months ago. Fascinating - and tragic. Apparently after their deep dives, (which can be exhaustingly strenuous), sperm whales doze, vertically poised in the water... sometimes in groups, which was news to me (photo/footage was shown).

From severe internal bruising (discolouring tissue) and broken vertebrae, posterior to the dorsal fin, it was conjectured that this whale had had its back fatally broken by ship collision while sleeping, probably impacted by the submerged rounded bulbous front protrusion of a tanker ship (hence little obvious surface-skin damage). Cables by which its carcass was lifted onto the lorry had further strained that area. So the unusual-seeming dorsal rupture site was where tissue had already been severely damaged.

Poor thing. Any ideas how such collisions with sleeping vulnerable whales could be avoided?

Sordes, look at this page my questions to Dino Frey :

Frey says that largest pliosaurs were probably around 25 m, and the killer of the possibly young or even juvenile of Aramberri had 5 m mandibles :

"... Well there is a bite mark with a diameter of 60 mm in the horizontal branch of a 350 mm pteroid. The tooth penetrated from dorsally meaning that the crown alone must have had a length of about 400 mm. Then comes a root which is normally about two thirds the length of a pliosaur tooth and then you just must find the bones to accommodate the ting and do a bit of calculation. So much for the possible five metres. Concerning a pedomorphy I see no evidence from the material...."

It seems to me quite likely that modern Sperm Whales do not represent the size apex for the species, as the largest ones were probably fished out during the age of whaling. Were there not old whaling reports claiming sperm whales in excess of 80 feet? (I suppose many could be exaggerations, of course). If they are accurate, though, then perhaps the 25m length would represent something of a physiological upper limit for giant aquatic superpredators, similar to the way the similar sizes of T-rex, Giganotosaurus, etc might represent the physiologic maximum size for a land superpredator.

If we're going to talk about "bad-assness", though, I don't think it fair to just talk about jaws and size, though. In an aquatic environment one needs to consider speed, agility, etc, and nonconventional weapons. Possessing a long-distance sonic pulse cannon has got to count for something, though it certainly is possible that pliosaurs had other weapons at their disposal too, which don't fossilize with the bones.

My guess is that, especially with the aid of their extraordinary intelligence, modern whales with hold their own against their prehistoric rivals in any fight. I'd put fair money on the conjecture that a modern pod of killer whales, thanks to their cooperation, coordination, and strategy, would rank as the most deadly force ever to have swam the seven seas.

Of course we never factor intellect into bad-assness, do we? That's like cheating. Like when a bunch of scrawny hairless puny-toothed primates smacked a bunch of rocks together and tied to pointy bits to sticks, and used them to wipe the sabretooths and their ilk from existence, and yet we think smilodon was all so tough.

It would be interesting to speculate how Megalodon would have matched up with the pliosaurs, as well (and maybe Dunkleosteus also)

And Colossal Squid would probably stack up reasonably well in the middle-weight categories too.

the similar sizes of T-rex, Giganotosaurus, etc

All surpassed by Spinosaurus by a noticeable margin.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 12 Apr 2009 #permalink

I'm surprised no one has captioned the exploded whale picture with Han Solo's classic line:
"I thought they smelled bad... on the outside!"