Field Physiology: Marine Mammal Autopsy

Come join us and have the experience of your life - while getting a University of Toronto and Physiology half credit. No exams/tests. Evaluated on performance and assignments. 

(PSL 378 in person) - in person at a facility with dormitory accommodations in Nova Scotia.  

Coordinator: Dr. C. Wittnich

Option 2 (PSL378 in person): ~ August 5-16, 2024   

Application Form: In person- Marine Mammal Autopsy application form 2024_5 (2).pdf                               

Description: Interested in a career in medicine, veterinary medicine or the allied health care stream? Maybe you are a budding marine biologist or forensic pathologist!

Whatever your future plans this physiology field course (PSL378) is for you. In a ‘CSI Toronto’ style learning you will experience unique detailed hands on anatomical exploration of a marine mammal (adult pinniped). Course runs from August 2024 in person in Nova Scotia. Please note appropriate COVID precautions will be taken.

 This is a great peek at what awaits you in any one of the aforementioned career streams! As students, you will participate in the necropsy and dissection, getting a firsthand look at the wonders of pinniped adaptations. Through this you will learn the animal’s state of health and general condition to determine what ultimately was the cause of death. This knowledge will assist us in better understanding these amazing creatures and how our environment is impacting on them. You will learn the basics of how necropsies are carried out and learn how through careful observation and methodical study of the anatomic and physiologic aspects of the victim, causes of death are determined. Please note that each year the course is subject to the availability of a specimen, which has been confirmed for 2024.

All course materials provided; space is limited to ensure hands on experience for all participants who wish it. Cost is approximately $3,000cdn (in person) plus University of Toronto tuition. Submitting the summer course application form with the non-refundable deposit of $500 (bank draft payable to University of Toronto) ensures your space on this very popular and unusual experience. Registrations have already begun, and spaces are limited so if you wish to be a part of this unique experience submit your application as soon as possible.

Come join us and have the experience of your life - while getting a University of Toronto and Physiology half credit. No exams/tests. Evaluated on performance and assignments. Details and forms on the Department of Physiology website at
Contact Dr. Wittnich immediately if interested at

Applications should be done immediately as there are limited spaces available.

Prerequisites:  PSL201Y / 280H / 300H / 301H / 378H / 480H / BIO220H / 230H / 252Y / 270H / 271H / CSB343H / PSY362H or course director approval

Cost: Course fee is approximately $3,000 for in person (includes accommodation, local transport, fees) in addition to the university tuition. Fees also cover costs associated with procurement, storage, transport, permits related to acquiring the body, video acquisition (online) and other expenses for this course.

Evaluation: This is a 2 week course that typically consists of one week hands on in the field and one week of group discussions on the findings and draft report preparation. Evaluation of workbooks - 20%, Field work 40%, Final report 40%

To Register: To ensure your space in this very popular course, please submit the Marine Mammal Autopsy form with the non-refundable deposit of $500 (bank draft - payable to the University of Toronto) to Jay Bhat (Medical Sciences Building, room 3368 - drop box). 


PSL378 was my favourite course I have taken not only in the Physiology department, but in the University as a whole. Looking at the other reviews on the Physiology website proves that I am not alone in this regard. Dr. Wittnich and the TAs did an amazing job to reignite my passion in research and help me gain insight into a field that is still relatively in its infancy. The entire process was explained and performed in such a way that every single student left with skills we never knew we needed. Not only were all students involved in each step of the necropsy, but Dr. Wittnich shared her veterinary knowledge by allowing all of us to try veterinary procedures, such as blood draws, catheterizations, culture swabs, and tissue biopsies. All of my questions were welcomed and answered with such detail I couldn’t help but fall in love with the study of marine mammals. I highly recommend this course if you have any interest in animal necropsies of any kind, writing research reports, improving your critical thinking skills, and learning how to take highly detailed field/research notes. While two weeks can seem overwhelming, I am certain that it is possible to learn more in this short period than that in many half- or full-year courses. Thank you again to Dr. Wittnich for such a rare experience. - Isabelle Colonna (2023

I took PSL378 'in person' at the University of Toronto campus in 2023 with Dr. Wittnich and had an amazing experience. Through performing a necropsy, I gained a much deeper understanding of physiology than I had been able to develop from textbooks and lectures. It was also a completely different experience performing a dissection myself and being able to examine the organs and tissues in a fresh specimen versus examining prepared prosections in other undergraduate courses. In addition, a big component of the course was determining the animal’s cause of death; this took a lot of critical thinking and review of the literature, which improved my analytical skills. Dr. Wittnich and the rest of the teaching team were very knowledgeable, enthusiastic, supportive, and open to questions. I would highly recommend taking this course if you want to gain experience with dissection, improve your understanding of physiology, have an interest in forensics, want to improve your analytical skills, and/or want an exciting experience working with a great team. Muireann Heuchan 2023

PSL378 was one of the most unique courses I took throughout my undergraduate degree. Although it was held virtually, it provided the field course experience I was hoping to get. We were able to observe a pinniped specimen and through detailed inspection and deduction, in true investigative form, we were able to come to a conclusion about the condition of this animal and what led to its death. We had the chance to apply our knowledge to a real word situation by examining the structures, physiology, and adaptations present in pinnipeds and factors that could potentially threaten these animals. Throughout the course Dr. Wittnich allowed the class to make observations independently and as a team and draw our own conclusions before guiding us which provided a deeper understanding of the content and its applications. This experience has taught me many skills for life in general as well as in academia. This course provided me with so many benefits like teamwork skills, writing a necropsy report, applying knowledge to real world situations, in only a short period of two weeks. Overall, I feel as though PSL378 was a highly valuable course and would recommend it to anyone hoping to take a course which is both educational and exciting all in one.

Daniella Passalacqua (2022)                                                             –

 “This was by far the best course we have taken at the university. We gained knowledge of the process of dissection, observation, note-taking, and necropsy report writing. Our small team, under the guidance of Dr. Wittnich, worked so well together. The necropsy became a CSI project as we sought to determine the state of the pinniped’s health and the probable cause of its death. It was a privilege to be allowed to work in the U of T lab facility and on such a majestic mammal as we conducted the necropsy. It was an incredible experience that has inspired us to pursue medical studies. We wish to thank Dr. Wittnich for the opportunity we were given. We would highly recommend this course”. - Mark Fraccaro & Luke Fraccaro (2013) 

"This course has absolutely been my most educational and enjoyable experience at the University of Toronto, and in my life's education in biology thus far. The level of involvement and understanding I gained about the fascinating machinery of the mammalian body (anatomy and physiology) by studying that of a marine mammal is exceptional. By taking this course, I was able to study the remarkably similar anatomy of a sea lion through an in-person, dissection-approach, a very educational and exciting opportunity that is not often available to undergraduate students. I learned about the interesting and complex interrelations between physiological systems, and the potentially consequential pathologies that could arise, often in unexpected areas. I also found this course to be remarkably efficient at teaching: I learned more about the anatomy and physiology of mammals in the two weeks of this course than what would usually be covered in a regular, semester-long course, and I had a great time doing so. The educational strategy organized by Dr. Wittnich, particularly the intensive dissection component, independent research, and illuminating in-class discussions made this course very effective and very fun. Overall, I believe that this is a course any student interested in physiology and anatomy should take. It will be a unique highlight of your undergraduate education in biology." - Ashraf Nahle (2012)

"I strongly recommend this course (PSL378) to anyone who wants to have a  hand-on experience on dissection, or anyone who simply wants to gain a deeper understanding of the physiology of an animal. Through this course I feel that all the knowledge I learned on paper became alive  and real, and the understanding to those concepts became more thorough  and clear. The necropsy experience was really exciting and rewarding,  as that huge adult male gray seal been dissected from skin to bone by our own hands under Dr. Wittnich's clear instruction and informative explanation. You really can learn as much as you like in this class.  The knowledge is all there, concrete and real, in front of your eyes  and makes you want to dive in and explore. I believe this course would  truly provide you a valuable learning experience that you will not  able to get from any other classes. Thank you so much for providing us such a valuable experience." - Lu Zheng 2009

"I can confidently say that PSL378 was the highlight of my undergrad studies; not just because it was a field course, as I have taken other field courses, but because the way this course is structured with friendly, energetic and knowledgeable instructor and staff, who encourage you to bring up questions with no hesitation, and the amount of interesting material that is available for each student to learn, makes the whole experience of taking this course simply unique! If there is one suggestion I can give to my colleagues in any program (science or non-science), here at UofT, it would be this:  Don't graduate without taking the PSL 378 course!!” - Slavish Ganjbakhsh (2007)