Collecting bones all in a day’s work

Skeleton of a humpback whale keeps Royal B.C. Museum staff busy

Dr. Gavin Hanke, Royal B.C. Museum

A rat in a compost pile is nothing new for Victoria.

Sometimes I set a small mine-field of traps in my compost bins. A rat may jump clear of one trap, but they commonly land on a nearby trap and their fate is sealed. The rats I kill sometimes end up as museum specimens – even common animals should be added to museum collections.

If I leave the rat in the compost too long, I find nice clean skeletons.

However, recently the Royal B.C. Museum received a specimen which had sat in a mix of well-aged manure and soil, and is far more spectacular than an everyday compost-raiding rat.

Late last year, Mike deRoos of Cetacea Inc., backed into the museum’s loading bay and delivered most of the skeleton of a humpback whale. We received the jaws of this whale months ago, and now we have limbs, ribs, and vertebrae. The skull will arrive in a separate shipment sometime this spring.

Because these bones had been prepared in compost, they smelled sweetly of soil from a pine forest. Seriously – next time you are out in a pine forest, grab a handful of moist soil and smell it.

You’d think the skeleton of a recently prepared whale would smell of rancid oils and rotten flesh – but not this humpback. We could market the bones as “forest scent” potpourri. Call me strange (many have already), but I like the smell of soil.

Even though we will not re-assemble this whale into an articulated skeleton, we wanted to know the order of each bone in the body. Ultimately this skeleton will be stored in our mammal research collection and will be available for researchers to examine.

This whale, at nine metres, was a few metres short of adult size – at birth they are four to 4.6 metres long, according to John Ford’s new book, Marine Mammals of British Columbia. It also has several ribs with abnormal bone growth. It makes me wonder if the odd growth caused pain and whether it was a contributing factor in this animal’s death.

This sure was a neat way to end a work-week. It is not every day you get to assemble a whale’s skeleton. Now I have to say a huge thanks to Kate Kerr and Jana Stefan from our exhibit arts department.

Kate and Jana were sent to help remove flesh from the humpback’s carcass – you have to admire them for having the gastro-intestinal fortitude to see such work through to completion. It took hours of de-fleshing, and over six months buried in compost, followed by months of drying to get the skeleton to its present state. Kate happened to walk by when I was unloading the skeleton, and commented on how much nicer the whale smelled compared to the last time she had seen it.

Is that it? Is the collection now full? No. The next marine mammals are already waiting in the freezer – a young Dall’s porpoise, a Northern Right whale dolphin, and the foetus of J32 (the southern resident Orca that died near Comox last December). J32 will be prepared off-site and could be ready for the museum collection later this summer.

More information on the Humpback and all other cetaceans in BC can be found in John Ford’s new book Marine Mammals of B.C.

•••

Dr. Gavin Hanke is the curator of vertebrate zoology at the Royal B.C. Museum.

 

 

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