The blue whale is an animal so gargantuan it’s defined by its stats almost as much as its biology. It is the largest animal to ever live; the heart is larger than a VW Beetle—you could pass through its massive aorta like a water slide. It turns out that two of those facts are false, but we had to actually extract one of these mounds of muscle to find out.
Last summer, two blue whales beached themselves in Canada. Researchers from the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) recognized the opportunity and got out their fleshing knives. One whale, found in Trout River, is set to have its full skeleton on display. The other, beached in Rocky Harbour in Gros Morne National Park, gave up its heart to the scientists—it was the first blue whale heart ever preserved.
But the heart didn’t go willingly. As the CBC reports, the 180-kilogram (400-pound) muscle required thousands of dollars worth of equipment to remove, and nearly 200-liters (almost 53 gallons) of formaldehyde to begin the preservation process. And before the heart was ready for study, it first needed to be thawed (it was frozen for months in transport and storage), cleaned, have all its vessels snipped and plugged, and be inflated with liquid to restore its shape.
Right away, the scientists could see that at least two of the famous facts about the blue whale’s heart could be debunked. First, while certainly enormous, its heart is nowhere near the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.
“It’s big, but it’s smaller than people have suggested—not quite as big as a Volkswagen,” ROM CEO Mark Engstrom told the CBC.
The second fact to get an update was the true size of the blue whale’s aorta (which some museums make big enough for children to play in). Again, though probably the largest such biological structure in the animal kingdom, the aorta could barely accommodate your head.
The video below from BBC and PBS’s “Big Blue Live” event shows everything up close and personal:
The heart is scheduled for display at the ROM sometime in 2017.