Category Archives: Research

Cetaceans’ Salty Taste Buds

According to recent articles published by ScienceNOW and Smithsonian, researchers have discovered that the taste buds of cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises) only sense salty flavors. The other receptors have been shut off or have mutated. Thus, they are likely not able to taste unnatural flavors in the water, such as toxins, which are often bitter.  As the ScienceNOW article points out, and we emphasize here when discussing how cetaceans eat, these animals swallow their food whole, thus eliminating much of the need to taste the food.

The two articles referenced above are based on research published in Genome Biology and Evolution. Zoologist Huabin Zhao of Wuhan University in China led the study.

Illustration of Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus), including detail of tongue and baleen. Ca. 1830, from NBWM Kendall collection.

Illustration of Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus), including detail of tongue and baleen. Ca. 1830, from NBWM Kendall collection.

Whaling Museum Summer Internships

The New Bedford Whaling Museum receives dozens of inquiries annually from high school, undergraduate and graduate students regarding our internship opportunities. Interns work directly with Museum staff to maintain and manage collections, produce programs events and exhibitions, and on research projects. They provide much needed assistance to the Museum while they learn new skills and often solidify their decisions to work in the museum field.

We are currently accepting applications and résumés through Friday, April 25, for summer 2014 internships. Interested students can visit our website and follow the links to apply. Descriptions of our departments and the possible projects are listed on the page. We plan on making final decisions in the first week of May.

For those of you who have already applied, thank you. We appreciate your interest in our Museum and internship program.

Several of the 2013 summer interns, with Science Director, Robert Rocha.

Several of the 2013 summer interns, with Science Director, Robert Rocha.

Locking Tusks Over Narwhals

This great piece by Carl Zimmer of National Geographic delves into the question “What is the purpose of a narwhal’s tusk?” This has been debated for centuries. The newest hypothesis comes from Martin Nweeia, a Connecticut dentist and a clinical instructor at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. He believes it is a sensory organ, since it has nerves running throughout its length. This tusk could conceivably assist the animal in making sense of its surroundings.  His findings are published in The Anatomical Record.

Kristin Laidre, from University of Washington, who has done her own fair share of narwhal research, believes that the tusk has more of a macho function. Male deer and elk have antlers, male rhinos have horns, male narwhals have tusks.

This is a good debate. Perhaps they’re both correct. We shall see.

"Ceratodon monoceros, Brifs / Der Narwal / CL.XI.MAMM / 335 / ORD. I. CETACEA" , artist unknown, 1825-1850. Note the original genus name, which has since been changed to Monodon. From NBWM Kendall Collection.

“Ceratodon monoceros, Brifs / Der Narwal / CL.XI.MAMM / 335 / ORD. I. CETACEA” , artist unknown, 1825-1850. Note the original genus name, which has since been changed to Monodon. From NBWM Kendall Collection.

Boston Tea Party ship model unveiled

In time for the 240th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, the New Bedford Whaling Museum is set to unveil a model of Dartmouth, first ship to be built in New Bedford in 1767, and which sailed into American history as one of the three vessels boarded and its cargo of British tea dumped into Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773.

Dartmouth, built in 1767 for the Rotch family, holds the distinction of being the first ship-rigged vessel constructed in then-named Bedford Village of Old Dartmouth, now New Bedford. Joseph Rotch arrived in the new settlement in 1765 from Nantucket, determined to establish a whaling industry on the mainland. He built Dartmouth to transport whale oil to England, then the principle market for his product. Carrying oil to England, the ship would return with British products for the colonies. It was with a cargo of tea that the ship returned to Boston in November 1773. The Sons of Liberty, determined not to pay the tax on tea imposed by the British, dumped the tea from Dartmouth along with that of the brig Beaver and ship Eleanor into Boston Harbor. This act of defiance, dubbed the Boston Tea Party, emboldened colonists to rebel against British rule. Dartmouth was lost in 1774 returning from her next voyage to London.

Despite its local origin and national fame, Dartmouth was not represented among the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s renowned collection of more than 175 ship models, due in part to limited historical data about the original vessel’s design and dimensions. To remedy the omission, the museum commissioned a model to be built by Richard Glanville, a professional marine model artist working in Maine. R. Michael Wall, proprietor of the American Marine Model Gallery, of Gloucester, Massachusetts, advised and coordinated the work, which first required considerable specific research to be conducted before construction of the 1/4″ = 1′ (1:48) Class-A scale model could begin, and which took Glanville over seven months to complete. Continue reading

From the Vault: Journal Kept Onboard the Newport’s 1892 Voyage

Every piece in the Library has its own unique story to tell, and we invite you to look at a few of the thousands of materials and hear their tales through the Museum’s “From the Vault”, a new digital exhibit featuring different treasures from the Library.

In 1978, Mr. and Mrs. George Bodfish donated to the Research Library a collection of manuscripts and photographs relating to Hartson Hartlett Bodfish (1862 – 1945), a captain of thirteen Western Arctic whaling voyages during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This donation also came with several logbooks and journals penned by Bodfish himself that document his whaling exploits. One of these journals contains a partial account of the Newport’s 1892 – 1898 whaling voyage. The journal begins on August 21, 1893 and represents an important chapter of American whaling history.

The rest of the story.

Investigating the Information Hidden in Whale Ear Wax

The hottest whale story of the day involves ear wax. Several outlets NBC NewsScience World Report, and New Scientist, among others, have posted stories about information enclosed in the long, waxy earplug of a 12 year old male blue whale that beached in 2007 along the California coast.  These earplugs have been used previously to determine the age of baleen whales. The wax builds up in the ear canal of the whales, with no way for the wax to exit the head. Baleen whales have distinct annual cycles of feeding and fasting, much like trees have annual cycles of growth and dormancy. Distinct changes in the rings are seen every six months. The blue whale from which the plug was taken was estimated to be 12 years old, since it had 24 rings in the wax.

The researchers of this project had wondered about what else could be ascertained from analysis of the waxy earplug. The results are significant, since they were able to determine several factors about the animal’s life, including the toxins that had entered the young whale’s body. It has long been known that many nursing marine mammals pass the toxins in their bodies through their milk to their calves. This sad fact held true for this blue whale.

Blue Whale4 NOAA

Their paper “Blue Whale Earplug Reveals Lifetime Contaminant Exposure and Hormone Profiles” has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  The authors have summarized the significance of their research: “Currently, obtaining lifetime chemical profiles (i.e., from birth to death) is extremely rare and difficult for most of Earth’s animals. We have developed a unique approach to quantify hormone and contaminant lifetime profiles for an individual blue whale with a 6-mo resolution using the wax earplug as a natural matrix capable of archiving and preserving these temporal profiles. Using a male blue whale earplug, chemical analysis reveals lifetime patterns of mercury and organic pollutant exposure as well as fluctuating hormone levels. Specifically, we quantified contaminant maternal transfer, time to sexual maturity, and the doubling of stress over the animal’s lifespan. We anticipate that this technique will fundamentally transform our ability to assess human impact on these environmental sentinels and their ecosystems.”

It should be noted that one of the authors, Charles Potter, of the Smithsonian Institution, is a friend of the New Bedford Whaling Museum and has contributed his knowledge, expertise and insight to past Museum projects.

The Lazarus Project and the Wreck of the “Viking”

Re-imaging the Opening of Japan

 Guest post submitted by Gregory Heyworth Director of the Lazarus Project  and Associate Professor of English at the University of Mississippi.

“The past,” as Faulkner said, “is never dead. It isn’t even past.” This past May, a team of imaging scientists and students from the Lazarus Project, an initiative to recover damaged manuscripts using multispectral imaging technology housed at the University of Mississippi, arrived at the New Bedford Whaling Museum to prove Faulkner right.

The object of interest was a damaged logbook from 1862 faded into near illegibility. The method involved photographing the manuscript with a cutting edge 50-megapixel camera and LED light arrays in twelve wavelengths between the ultraviolet and the infrared. With careful image processing, multispectral photography can “see” text that has been washed away, faded and charred.

Lazarus Project

 [Image before and after]

While Drs. Gregory Heyworth and Roger Easton from the Lazarus Team regularly deal with ancient manuscripts, modern manuscripts can be equally challenging and historically important. That is certainly the case with much of the New Bedford collection. The significance of this particular logbook begins two centuries before the shipwreck of the Fairhaven merchant vessel off the coast of Japan.

For two hundred years between 1633 and 1853, while Western Europe was moving from Renaissance to Enlightnment to Industrial Revolution, Japan languished frozen in the past, a Hermit Kingdom cut-off from the rest of the world. Under the policy of the Tokugawa Shogunate known as the sakoku, any foreigner attempting to enter Japan did so upon pain of death, while natives were forbidden from leaving Japan. Aside from limited contact with the Dutch, Japan had no trade dealings with the West whatsoever.

As we all learned in high school history, all that changed in 1852-54 when Admiral Matthew Perry “opened” Japan, establishing a trade relationship and mutual amity. The truth, however, is more complicated. Perry’s “opening” of Japan was really an act of coercion, backed up by outright threats of military annihilation by a modern fleet of steam-driven warships. In practice, the Japanese capitulation was widely resisted by the general populace and the sakoku with its death-sentence for foreigners remained unchallenged.

Alongside the political narrative of the opening of Japan, scholars have been turning to the logbooks of whaling and merchant vessels to establish a more accurate social narrative of the period. The 1832 the shipwreck of Japanese fishermen on the coast of Washington, followed in 1841 by the more famous rescue of Manjiro and another crew of Japanese fisherman by a whaler off the coast of Japan, offer firsthand accounts of crucial early contact and the germs of a fragile detente between cultures without which Perry’s  trade treaties could never have succeeded in practice.

Among these early relations, perhaps none is more historically significant, and yet less studied, that the wreck of the Fairhaven merchant ship the Viking in 1863. With a crew of Americans and 400 Chinese immigrants, the Viking ran aground on the small Japanese island of Mikurajima. Faced by the suddeness of this foreign intrusion, the villagers took steps to execute the crew according to the law of sakoku until the village secretary intervened. In the ensuing months, a genuine friendship, aided by their creation of the first Japanese-English dictionary, grew between the sailors and villagers. In many ways, a truly open, modern Japan began on this small island, and its story is preserved in this unique neglected record of the Viking.

The Lazarus Project hopes to continue the process of recovery by collaborating with the New Bedford Whailing Museum in the creation of a digital archive of 19th century Japanese-American maritime relations held by the museum into a digital archive.

One fine artifact from the cultures of the Western Arctic

Found this cool thing in the collection the other day, it was boxed with American colonial and Eastern Woodlands artifacts but one glance and I had my doubts.


It appears to be a nephrite stone mallet bound with rawhide onto a handle of reindeer or caribou leg bone. It was a thrill to find it because it is in perfect condition, but a little bit disappointing in the end because it can’t go into our new exhibition on the colonial history of the Old Dartmouth region. It didn’t really look like your average Algonquin artifact. It turned out to be either a North Slope Inuit or a Chukchi [Siberia] people’s tool called a kautaq used when crushing bones to extract the marrow, called puiniq. Such tools are generally large and heavy, but this one is somewhat smaller and could also have been used to pound fish fillets into flakes. This was women’s work and arduous but a woman who knew how to do it properly was much esteemed in the family. The bone marrow is extremely nutritious and if prepared properly keeps for quite a long time. Good winter food apparently. A good description of the tool can be found on the Echospace website

“The kautaq or hammer used to crush the bones was made of an oblong stone mounted on a short slightly curved handle. Some families prided themselves on having a jadestone hammerhead, but any rock plucked from a stream bed that was of the right size, shape and weight could serve just as well. Elders cautioned that the hammer’s striking face should have a flat, rough textured surface. This helped prevent the hammer from slipping off the bone as the crushing blows were struck. The handle of the hammer could be made from a number of materials. Some people used dall sheep horn, others a curved section of caribou antler, while others still preferred spruce or alderwood. The handle was usually less than six inches long and slightly curved to fit comfortably in a person’s hand. The head and handle were joined by a caribou or sealskin thong that was passed through a hole drilled near the top end of the handle, and wrapped around the stone head several times. A tight secure fit was assured by doing the lashing with a wet, water soaked thong, which shrank and tightened as it dried. Later, small wooden wedges could be added to shim up the fit, if they were needed.”

It’s a wonderful object inducing marvel in its elegant simplicity. It’s probably late 19th or early 20th century but in essence it could have been made any time in the last 5000 years.

Maritime Curator presents at 4th Whaling History Symposium

Kendall Whaling Museum alumni Michael Dyer, Joost Schokkenbroek and Hayato Sakurai all presented at Sndefjord whaling history conference this June.

Kendall Whaling Museum alumni Michael Dyer, Joost Schokkenbroek and Hayato Sakurai all presented at Sandefjord whaling history conference this June.

This conference, which took place June 20-21, was organized under the auspices of Vestfold Museums and the Hvalfangstmuseet of Sandefjord. There were about forty attendees from thirteen nations. It took place at the Clarion Atlantic Hotel in Sandefjord, a large facility entirely decorated with installations of modern whaling equipment, art and architectural elements amassed as the personal collection of the hotel’s owner. Sixteen papers were selected for presentation from a pool of over thirty-five submissions in the call for papers – their largest response to date. Part of the reason for the large response is that the proceedings are published in an esteemed and useful hard-bound format.

Several of the papers were in direct response to previous articles published in the proceedings of previous symposia and collectively are building a body of work on certain subjects including the history of science and Soviet whaling. This kind of accrued knowledge effectively creates the sort of intellectual environment attractive to scholars. Additionally the opportunity for like-minded scholars, curators, enthusiasts and students to gather, talk and exchange ideas in a convivial atmosphere was one of greatest benefit and stated by the organizers to be of equal importance to the presentations. Many of the presenters had used the resources of the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library and while all agreed that the resources were wonderful, most were more impressed with the level of service and professional assistance that they received while visiting in person. This is not the case in many research facilities according to several people.
Several of the papers dealt with modern whaling, as one might image. Alex Aguilar’s paper on the shore station of the Iberian Peninsula in the 20th century was particularly insightful with new analysis of the successes and failures of these shore stations.

Hayato Sakurai gave a superb overview of the history of the Taiji Whale Museum that combined town and national politics, public relations, whales, whaling and tourism. Oral history, general regional references and one particularly interesting paper on the history of whaling at Santa Catarina Island in Brazil contributed to a well-rounded look at the subjects.

Throughout the conference, the questions of globalization, global economic interactions, global environmental impacts and whaling as important driver of 19th and 20th century international affairs came to the fore. Both the U.S.A. and Norway had strong influences on other nations through whaling. This was a very academic symposium with few papers addressing collections, museums and their influence, or other such non-paper-based research projects.

Dyer’s was the final paper of the symposium. Entitled “Why black whales are called right whales” it combined art, history, biology and the history of science into one large humanities-based analysis of language, whaling and taxonomy in relationship to the world’s most endangered whale, Eubalaena glacialis.

The proceedings are due to be published next year.

The Heritage of Landscape

By Michael P. Dyer
Librarian and Maritime Historian, New Bedford Whaling Museum
A talk presented to the Congregational Church of South Dartmouth
Upon their bicentennial anniversary
March 17, 2007

My intent this evening is to attempt to convey, less the letter of our local history and more its value to the community, its nature and texture. When I speak of the “Heritage of Landscape” it is to serve as a reminder of the inherent dignity and respect that is owed to this place. As our wars overseas are conceived and enacted with the express purpose of espousing freedom, it will not do to forget the reasons for our settlement in the first place; the sorts of people that are the roots of our local stock and that war once ravaged the very doorsteps of Dartmouth. There is no better way to support our country, no better act of patriotism than to preserve with careful respect the land on which we live, its architecture wherever possible, and at all costs, its history.

We are extremely fortunate that our local history has been a subject of passionate interest, bordering on obsession, by the citizens of this region since the mid-19th century. Great tomes are devoted the subject, many fine paintings interpret it, and several fine institutions and dynamic and aggressive organizations are devoted to its preservation, dissemination and understanding. I beg your indulgence for a few minutes this evening to outline a very few points of this illustrious history and I thank the board of the Dartmouth Heritage Preservation Trust for the opportunity to do so.

The following quotation has absolutely nothing to do with the specificity of tonight’s discussion but everything to do with its inspiration. It is taken from J. R. R. Tolkien’s volume two, The Two Towers of his trilogy The Lord of the Rings, “It seems that you have heard in Rohan of the words that troubled Minas Tirith. They spoke of the Halfling. These hobbits are Halflings.” “Halflings!” laughed the Rider that stood beside Eomer. “Halflings! But they are only a little people in old songs and children’s tales out of the North. Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?” “A man may do both,” said Aragorn. “For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!”

William Allen Wall (1801-1885). Buttonwood Brook, circa 1850s. Oil on canvas. ODHS #1977.55, purchased in memory of Kathleen G. Barney with funds donated by her husband, Lawrence H. Barney, Jr.

William Allen Wall (1801-1885). Buttonwood Brook, circa 1850s. Oil on canvas. ODHS #1977.55, purchased in memory of Kathleen G. Barney with funds donated by her husband, Lawrence H. Barney, Jr.

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