The team of biologists and marine researchers studying the remains of a stranded sperm whale detected an important clue Friday afternoon.
"We're finding some chronic infection. The animal has had some sort of issue with infection in its abdominal cavity," Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission biologist Andy Garret said.
He added it would be premature to say that was the primary cause of the animal's distress, however.
"A lot of times, it's sort of a cascading effect where it gets an infection, it gets worse, it stops eating, the nutrition goes down, you start using your fat stores," Garrett said.
The sperm whale's weakness and emaciation was quickly noted Thursday when she first appeared just offshore of Madeira Beach. She was also many, many miles away from the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico where sperm whales live and die.
The 32-foot long young adult female's terminal state led biologists to euthanize her Thursday afternoon.
Friday morning, the carcass was pulled onto a remote beach at Ft. DeSoto Park, where a necropsy was performed.
"Necropsies can be extremely valuable," explained the University of Florida's Dr. Michael Walsh. "One for the individual relationship on what happened to that individual, and another as a sentinel on what's going on in the environment."
Kyle Baker, a sperm whale expert with National Marine Fisheries, agreed.
"We don't know a lot about them, they're out there in the deep water in the Gulf, they're hard to study. So as much as we can learn from this whale as possible will benefit us and the whales," Baker said.
The National Marine Fisheries Service recorded only 56 sperm whale strandings in the southeastern United States between 1998 and 2012. That area stretches from Texas to North Carolina and includes the U.S. Caribbean.
The number of animals either in good enough condition or position for study is even smaller, which makes the work at Ft. DeSoto a rare opportunity for researchers.
Sperm whales can live for up to 60 years and dive as far as 10,000 feet below the ocean's surface. Their primary food includes giant squid, which are also not found in the relatively shallow water off Florida's west coast.
It will probably take several months to thoroughly study the samples taken Friday. The whale's remains are now discretely buried under the remote beach at Ft. DeSoto.