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A dead whale in the sand dunes at Rottumerplaat is a feast for the beetles. The whale carcass does not need to be cleaned immediately

Whale carcass on the Rottumerplaat Photo: Martin Baptist / Wageningen Marine Research

A washed whale carcass does not always need to be cleaned immediately. The dead whale is a great food source for dozens of beetles that eat flesh, skin, and other animals, and it performs a function in the ecosystem. This is evidenced by research on a dead whale that has been lying in the dunes of Rottumerplaat since the end of 2020.

If the dead animal is in a place where the stench is not a nuisance, and where shipping does not bother, such a carcass can remain for years.

Scientists from Wageningen Marine Research were monitoring what happened to the whale on the Rottummerplaat on behalf of the Rijkswaterstaat. They came up with the advice not to always remove the bodies right away.

One of the reasons for the removal of washed whales is that the animals have a lot of polluting cadmium in their bodies, but the whale on the Rottummerplaat did not pollute the bottom at all. Rijkswaterstaat will now discuss with other nature managers how the whale carcasses will be handled in the future.

21 new species of beetles

The dead whale in the Rottummerplaat dunes has attracted 57 species of beetles, of which 21 are new species. Some beetles, attracted by the smell, came from the mainland to the corpse.

Although scientists predicted that birds would be the first to eat the dead animal, this was not the case. I tried crows, magpies, and black-backed gulls, but the skin turned out to be too thick to open. After six months of decomposition, the whale was a feast for the beetles. The dead animal also released many nutrients into the soil. More research has yet to show what effect this has.

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According to the researchers, the stench wasn’t too bad. “Some days the smell was lingering and it was annoying to stay in it for a long time, but it wasn’t severe at all,” the scientists said.