What Is a Necropsy?

How Necropsies Help Us Learn About Animals

Right whale necropsy photo, showing blubber
A necropsy (animal autopsy) of a right whale in Florida. Note the extremely thick blubber layer just under the whale's skin. © Dianna Schulte, Blue Ocean Society

Necropsy is a dissection of a dead animal to determine the cause of death. In essence, it is an autopsy performed on an animal, such as a whale or shark. Necropsies can help us learn more about the biology of an animal, how it is affected by disease or how human interactions may impact animals.

Veterinarians regularly perform necropsies on livestock in order to determine whether the cause of death is due to sickness or other environmental factors that may affect the rest of the livestock.

If caught early, we can use the information to prevent or contain outbreaks. Zoos and other institutions that care for animals also perform necropsies on animals that have died in their care in order to ensure the safety of other animals who may be affected.

Common Necropsy Procedures 

Some of the procedures for a necropsy include collecting samples from one or more of the internal organs, examining the stomach contents and looking for signs of trauma. The blood will also be examined in order to determine enzyme values and other factors. From the necropsy, researchers and veterinarians are able to determine how old an animal is, whether or not a female had been pregnant and what the animal ate. 

When it comes to whales, skeletons are kept after the necropsy and sent to universities, schools and museums so that the specimen can be studied well into the future.