This investigative case module was prepared as part of a BioQUEST faculty development workshop entitled Selected Cases at Beloit College in June 1999. The cases, resources, and implementation strategies were developed by participants for use with their own students. We invite you to adopt and adapt the following materials.

The BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium is committed to the reform of undergraduate biology instruction through an emphasis on engaging students in realistic scientific practices. This approach is sometimes characterized as an inquiry driven approach and is captured in BioQUEST's three P's (problem-posing, problem-solving, and peer-persuasion). As part of this workshop groups of faculty were encouraged to initiate innovative curricular projects. We are sharing these works in progress in the hope that they will stimulate further exploration, collaboration and development. Please see the following links for additional information:

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Investigative Cases
The Case: Kujira

Teruko sat with her friend Sean at lunch and enthusiastically described her brother’s wedding and reception in Japan. “The family hired special chefs who prepared some amazing dishes. My favorite was the kujira.”

“What’s kujira?” Sean asked.

“It’s whale meat.” Teruko replied. When Sean made a face, she continued, “It’s delicious really. Better than this pepperoni pizza.”

“Isn’t whale meat illegal? I read there’s a huge black market and people pay up to $400 a pound for what they think is whale meat,” Sean said.

Now it was Teruko who made a face. “How do they know it’s not whale meat?” she asked.

“Some biotech test,” Sean replied with a shrug.

Case Author:
Margaret Waterman Southeast Missouri State University
Ethel Stanley Beloit College

Case Analysis

Whales are swimming oceanic mammals
Dolphins are illegal to catch
Whaling is legal in some countries like Japan
DNA sequencing is helpful
Protein analysis is helpful (electrophoresis)
HPLC or Mass spec are helpful
Having a data base is important

What is a whale?
What is the difference between a whale and a dolphin?
Why substitute dolphin for whale meat?
What are the legalities (whaling)?
What's in a corn dog?
What's involved in a traditional Japenese wedding ceremony?
What type of biotech test is done?
Are there other tests?
How is Kujira prepared?
What types of whales can you eat? (gender based?)

Option: Include a know / need to know chart like the one below:

What do you know?
What do you need to know?

Learning Goals


The relevance and use of molecular data in modern biology
Interdisciplinary science connections, ie. politics, socio-economics and culture.

Collaborative groups should identify probable issues, such as:

1. Nutrition
2. Genetic testing
3. Criminal acts - whale poaching
4. Classification
5. Forensics - identifying unknowns
6. Cultural differences



Investigations and Activities

How does the test work that determines if whale meat is really from whales?

In this workshop participants were asked to form nine pairs and used the website below to get an unknown whale meat sequence sample. The pairs copied the sequence and pasted it into a simple search to find the cetacean sequence it was most similar to. A phenogram showing known whale sequences was generated. The unknown sample appeared in red text next to its closest match. The pairs then found a picture of their whale and found out if the sample came from a legally obtained whale. They accessed the website and used the following directions.

Witness for the Whales

Scott Baker from New Zealand completed an interesting forensics activity in which "whale" products purchased in Japanese and Korean markets were identified using their DNA sequence information.

He reported the origin of these 655 “whale” products which included a variety of “legal” whales as well as baleen whales, killer whales, porpoises, dolphins, and even horses and sheep!

Baker’s identification began with isolating DNA from the meat and then he:
* looked at a tiny portion of the genomic DNA for comparisons - smaller is often better- a region of only 400 base pairs was used
* chose a sequence that is highly conserved
* used primers - short DNA sequences that bind near the site of interest - to seek out a specific mitochondrial DNA region
* used PCR - polymerase chain reaction - to amplify the site
* compared the DNA sequence of the site to the known sequences after alignment

You have access to nine “unknown” sequences obtained from samples of “whale meat” purchased in Japanese markets in 1997-2002.

1. Select an “unknown” sample
2. Run the alignment following the instructions.
3. Determine whether or not the sample is legal (such as the minke whale) or illegal.

Where does your unknown sequence fit? The program looks at homology – a statistical measure of the overall similarity between your sequence and aligned sequences for known Cetaceans.

Now that you have found the type of cetacean that your unknown sequence most closely matches, how can you find out if it is "legal" or not?

What other kinds of investigations could be addressed using similar techniques?

The participants proposed the following activities:
1. Use this in ecology class to examine food webs
2. Look at the life cycle of the whale and determine the birth interval to see if overharvesting was a potential risk
3. In chemistry class, look at other whale-based products such as oils. Analyze fat content, etc.
4. Nutritional analysis of whale meat and blubber
5. In Physics, force required to harpoon a whale with and without modern propellants



1. The International Whaling Commission has data concerning whales, population numbers, classification, etc.

The participants generated these additional resources

2. Map of where whales are found, by type

3. Images of whales

4. Molecular sequence data for whales

Students will usually obtain additional references or resources
to help answer or explore their questions.

Special Data Items

1. kujira.jpg


Student Products

1. Role play of Japanese wedding
2. Pamphlet for whale meat consumer
3. Compose new law on harvesting whales or labeling whale meat
4. Compose a public service announcement alerting consumers to faux whale meat
5. Write a script for a cooking show chef on whale meat preparation
6. Set up a debate on the pros and cons of deciding who should be allowed to harvest whales
7. Mock UN considering international whaling agreements
8. Panel of "experts" to report during UN meeting
9. Create a cover for a magazine that goes with a whale article
10. Examine the philosophy of meat eaters and their choices
11. Compose a Japanese haiku on whaling
12. Arts and craft activity designing a T shirt on this controversy
13. Have each student design a block (virtual or real) for a class quilt
14. Dimensional analysis of whale bodies, perhaps of different ages (mathematics, surface to volume ratios)
15. Rewrite exam questions for content and process
16. Create a web site from this case

Assessment and Evaluation Plan

Know / Need to Know Worksheets 25 points
Unknown whale sample identification worksheet 25 points
Extended group investigation 100 points



Course name:
Introductory Biology
Likely sequence in syllabus:
After introducing nucleic acids; during intro to phylogenetics
Time during term:
3rd week; return again later in semester
2 days
Lecture and Lab
Students in course:
Freshman Biology majors/ non-Biology majors
Collaborative elements:
Work in groups of three
Additional notes:



Thanks to Peter Lockhart, Massey University, New Zealand for introducing us to the Witness for the Whales web site.

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