Category Archives: Science

Quasimodo: The Museum’s Humpback Whale

Story by Lauren Coombes, Education Intern.

The Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) skeleton that hangs in the Jacob’s Family Gallery is a 37 foot long male nicknamed Quasimodo, whose estimated age at time of death was 3 years old. He was found in 1932 and was first hung in the museum in 1936. This is his story.

Quasimodo's ribs, on Noman's Land. Photo from NBWM Collection. 1988.6.338.b

Quasimodo’s ribs, on Noman’s Land. Photo from NBWM Collection. 1988.6.338.b

On December 29, 1932 Captain Ralph W. Wood noticed a mysterious black object floating off Noman’s Land, an island 3 miles off the southwest corner of Martha’s Vineyard. He lived on the island with his family and they were the island’s only inhabitants. Captain Wood then took his powerboat Flit out about a mile from the island and discovered that the object was the carcass of a humpback whale. As he arrived, so too did the U.S. Coast Guard. Captain Wood convinced the Coast Guard to help him tow the whale to land, citing it as a menace to navigation. From there they attached a four-inch hawser to the carcass. The whale was difficult to move and, “three such hawsers were snapped before the whale could be beached on the Noman’s Land shore!”

After towing it to shore they fastened the whale to a large rock. Soon after, a nor’easter then tore the whale from the rock, throwing it farther up shore and past the high water mark. The carcass was then left until August, 1933 when Wilbur G. Sherman, an old-time whaleman from New Bedford heard about the whale and arranged a meeting between Captain Wood and William H. Tripp, curator for the Old Dartmouth Historical Society. John B. Smith, a scientist connected with the Boston Museum of Natural History accompanied Tripp on his August visit to the island. Mr. Smith determined that the specimen could be salvaged and set up in a museum. Mr. Tripp then convinced the Historical Society’s board to purchase the whale. Mr. Tripp made the voyage to Noman’s Land accompanied by Captain Wood, Bertrand T. Wood (Captain Wood’s son), Mr. Sherman, Lester Brownell, George T. Plummer and Paul Lynam.

Bones and tent on shore of Noman's Land. Photo from NBWM collection. 1988.6.306

Bones and tent on shore of Noman’s Land. Photo from NBWM collection. 1988.6.306

Throughout September the crew attempted to strip Quasimodo of his blubber, take out his bones, and tag them so they could easily be put back together later. Bertrand Wood kept a detailed journal, similar in style to that of a sea log, of the stripping and cataloguing process. He gave members of the project names that would befit a whale ship. Mr. Tripp was the Commodore, Ralph Wood was the Captain, Bertrand Wood was the first mate, Mr. Sherman was the official whale-cutter, William L. Pierce was the assistant cutter, Herbert Wood was the assistant cutter, and Jerome Fraser was the cook. As they took apart the whale they found that two finger bones were missing, and a news article also reported that the Atlas, the first vertebra of the skeleton, was also missing and never found. Though it is confirmed that the finger bones were in fact missing, there appears to be a proper fitting atlas on our skeleton.

The process of cleaning the bones was the next step and they were buried at Horseneck Beach in Westport, MA for 6 months. They were then uncovered, scraped, and reburied for another 6 months. This burying of a skeleton in sand was not an unusual way to prepare it. The location of the burial was kept confidential and was constantly under watch to prevent thieves and pranksters. After they were uncovered and scraped for the second time, they were left to bleach for several days in the sun, on the roof of the Museum. After the bleaching process was complete the skeleton was assembled and was hung in the Bourne Building in 1936. And curator Tripp quoted “We are no longer a whaling museum without a whale.” The whale was then taken down and reassembled in the 1980s near the theater, and with the completion of the Jacobs Family Gallery in August 2000, it now has its official home.

Quasimodo's spine on shore of Noman's Land. Photo from NBWM collection. 1988.6.301

Quasimodo’s spine on shore of Noman’s Land. Photo from NBWM collection. 1988.6.301

There is no confirmed cause of Quasimodo’s death, but one possibility is that he was killed by an orca (killer whale). This is due to the fact that Quasimodo was found without a tongue. It is a common behavior of orcas to bite off the tongues of other whales and leave them to die. Curator Tripp drew this conclusion when he examined the whale on his first visit to the island. Although not common in our coastal waters, orcas can be found off our coast. At the time this story was being written (summer 2016), an orca had been spotted by a fishing charter operator off the Massachusetts coast.

According to a recent NOAA report, there are fourteen humpback whale distinct population segments (DPS) that have been identified around the globe. Of those fourteen two are classified as threatened, the Central America DPS and the Western North Pacific DPS. An additional two groups are classified as endangered, the Arabian Sea DPS and the Cape Verde Islands/ Northwest Africa DPS. The current population is estimated to be 70,000-80,000, which is still less than 50% of their pre-whaling population. Though their biggest threat of commercial whaling no longer affects this species, they face many other significant threats. These threats include: entanglement in fishing gear, ship strikes, harassment from whale watch boats (especially in countries with little to no regulation), noise pollution and habitat impacts.

Works Cited

The Bulletin from Johnny Cake Hill A Newsletter from the Old Dartmouth Historical Society & Whaling Museum Fall 1987

The Standard-Times, New Bedford, MA Friday, July 17, 1987

Wood, Bertrand. Legends and Stories of Noman’s Land Island. (Jewett City, CT, 1978).

Our Latest ‘Whaling Voyage’. The Standard Times, New Bedford, MA Oct. 15, 1933.

The Standard Times New Bedford, MA, September 16, 1933.

NOAA Fisheries “Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). Updated July 12, 2016. http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/whales/humpback-whale.html

 

Learning About Whales: From Challenging Research Comes Great Discoveries

The recent discovery of a new beaked whale species, one that was believed to be a variant of a previously described species, is a reminder that our understanding of cetaceans is still limited. Humans have revered whales, and hunted whales, for centuries. They’ve been woven into folklore and turned into a variety of products. But, they are difficult to study. They spend most of their lives below the ocean’s surface and don’t speak human. Conversely, we can’t hold our breath for very long and we don’t speak whale.  So, getting to know them well is a challenge.

Researchers have gotten creative and collaborative, developing satellite tags that attach via suction cup, using drones fitted with bridal veil to catch whale’s spray when they exhale, collecting and analyzing fecal matter and using DNA technology to confirm, or reclassify, the existence of a new species.  That is the case with the as yet unnamed new species of beaked whale. It has been interesting to periodically check in on the web site of the Society for Marine Mammalogy to see what they list as the number of whale, dolphin and porpoise species (about to become 90 again), and to read the logic regarding their decisions.

Here’s a quick peek into some other recent discoveries:

Cuvier's beaked whale. Illustration by Phil Coles.

Cuvier’s beaked whale. Illustration by Phil Coles.

The Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) has the deepest dives (9816 feet (2992m) and 137.5 minutes) of any marine mammal. A team of researchers, led by Gregory Schorr of Cascadia Research Collectives, made this discovery in 2014 after sifting through 3,700 hours of data collected with satellite tags. (Gregory Schorr, PLOS One, March 2014).

Another species of beaked whale, now known as Deraniyagala’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon hotaula), was confirmed in 2014. This species was originally given this name in 1963, but was reclassified in 1965 as a gingko-toothed whale (Mesoplodon gingkodens). A review of DNA and physical characteristics, led by Dr. Merel Dalebout of Univ of New South Wales, Australia, led to the proper taxonomic recognition and placement of this species. (Merel Dalebout, Marine Mammal Science, February 2014).

Humpback family. Illustration by Richard Ellis.

Humpback family. Illustration by Richard Ellis.

Humpbacks whales, arguably the most recognizable type of whale, are a global species. We now know that their cultural habits and migration patterns have led to genetic diversity. A team led by Dr. Scott Baker from Oregon State examined 2200 biopsy samples of North Pacific humpbacks. Their research has determined that there are five distinct humpback whale populations in the North Pacific. This new information may prove critical when decisions are made regarding the level of protection these animals receive.  (Scott Baker, Marine Ecology – Progress Series, 2013).

Author with skulls of male and female Blainville's beaked whales.

Author with skulls of male and female Blainville’s beaked whales.

Whales are adaptable, intelligent animals.  One impressive example of this ability to adjust behavior to maximize survival is exhibited by the Blainville’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon densirostris).  In an effort to avoid predators like the orca, Blainville’s remain silent until they reach a depth of 560 ft (170m), at which point they will begin to communicate and echolocate to hunt. Orcas tend not to dive to these depths to find food. (Natacha Aguilar, Marine Mammal Science, July 2011)

Blainville's beaked whale. Illustration by Phil Coles.

Blainville’s beaked whale. Illustration by Phil Coles.

Most of the recent discoveries of new cetacean species involve animals with teeth. The one exception is the Omura’s whale (Balaenoptera omurai), first classified in 2003. This whale was previously thought to be a variant of the Bryde’s whale (Balaenoptera edeni). It is definitely a distinct species. This National Geographic story provides some great photos and information about this whale. Featured in the article is Dr. Salvatore Cerchio who was a panelist here at the NBWM two weeks ago when we aired the film, Sonic Sea.

Photo of Echovenator skull. Photograph by Jonathan Geisler.

Photo of Echovenator skull. Photograph by Jonathan Geisler.

Along with this new knowledge of existing species, fossil species are being discovered on a regular basis. Two species of dolphin, Echovenator sandersi, (Morgan Churchill, Current Biology, 2016)  and Isthminia panamensis (Nick Pyenson, PeerJ, September 2015) have been unearthed and described.

An important transitional species, from 27 million years ago, that had both baleen and teeth, Sitsqwayk cornishorum (Carlos Mauricio Peredo, Papers in Paleontology, July 2016) adds to our understanding of the evolution of baleen whales. Lastly, a re-examination of a fossil skeleton found 90 years ago, has led to the introduction of a new genus, Albicetus, (white whale), into the sperm whale family tree. This whale lived between 5.3 and 23 million years ago.

Visualizing Whale Sounds

From Woods Hole Currents Magazine

From Woods Hole Currents Magazine

As we get better acquainted with the sounds cetaceans make, researchers look for innovative ways to analyze and interpret what is being heard. Recent articles, including this one by Science News for Students, based on a recent publication in Science Communication, a recent interview by NPR featuring Katy and Roger Payne, as well as the article featured below, indicate that language has structure and can be learned.  This then drives research into whale culture and social structure. Hal Whitehead, from Dalhousie University, has been studying sperm whale social structure for decades (see Sperm Whales: Social Evolution in the Ocean, published in 2003). He will speak on this topic here on Tuesday, November 10, during our Whales in the Heart of the Sea lecture series.

One of the most interesting facets of this research is the use of spectrograms to visualize the sounds being made. Being the sight-focused species that we are, this visual representation of the sounds enhances our ability to recognize patterns, if indeed there are any.

What is a Spectrogram

This recent article in Smithsonian Magazine, featuring the work of David Rothenburg in Medium, combines spectrogram, sound and art to depict recognizable audio patterns as colorful shapes. We still don’t know what the male humpback was trying communicate with these vocalizations, but it’s clear that the sounds are not random meanderings.

The legacy of marine mammal sound recording started by William Schevill and William Watkins 60 years ago continues with new technology and new interpretive techniques. We will continue to follow these trends as the new stewards of the William A. Watkins Collection of Marine Mammal Sound Recordings and Data.

A Scoop of …. with Your Ice Cream

Whaling became a global industry because there was a need, and thus a market, for the products derived from blubber and baleen. Lamps, lighthouses and streetlights were all lit with one form or another of whale oil. Spermaceti candles were a valued commodity because they burned cleanly without smoke. Lubricants were made from the blubber and jaw pads of toothed whales. Corset stays, collar stiffeners, leaf springs and other products were sliced out of baleen. But, perhaps the most unusual source of a whale-based product is the black, tarry substance secreted by the intestines of male sperm whales. This unusual biological creation is known as ambergris, French for gray amber.

Beak of giant squid (Architeuthis dux). Photo from Wikimedia commons.

Beak of giant squid (Architeuthis dux). Photo from Wikimedia commons.

Sperm whales eat lots of squid. Squid digest well, except for their beaks. If the whale doesn’t vomit the beaks they will pass through the three stomachs into the intestines. The sharp edges of the beak most likely irritate the inner walls of the intestines. Thus, some sperm whales, apparently only males, secrete the ambergris to coat the sharp edges of the beaks. Eventually the lump of beaks, ambergris and other digestive tract material find their way out the back end of the whale. Once in the water, which is colder than the inside of a whale, the ambergris becomes much more of a solid. Exposure to air and salt can oxidize the lump and lighten its color to gray rather than black, hence the name.

Ambergris and Scrimshaw Tooth from Capt. Harry Mandly of Valkyria

Ambergris and Scrimshaw Tooth from Capt. Harry Mandly of Valkyria

Some of us here have wondered who first figured out that a substance (a protein called ambrein) could be extracted from these lumps and used in perfumes as a fixative for color and aroma. What types of experiments were he/she/they doing? Did they know the source of this ambergris? Were they searching for something else?

We do know that ambergris has been used in food, burned as incense and used as an aphrodisiac for centuries. However, I think it may come as a surprise to learn that the first known recorded recipe for ice cream would include ambergris, or ambergreece, as it’s written in the recipe, as a potential ingredient.

The story of the origin of ice cream is a fun read anyway. You can listen to a podcast on Gastropod or read their article. But, to know that a substance that comes out of the back end of a whale was part of the original recipe is amusing. People have mixed it into their eggs and shaved it on top of their port wine. But, if it finds its way back into ice cream, it will have to happen in another country. Use of ambergris, and all other marine mammal products has been outlawed in the U.S. since 1972 when the Marine Mammal Protection Act went into effect.

World Oceans Day

In honor of World Oceans Day, we would like to share links to two video clips featuring the most acrobatic of all whale species, the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae).

Humpback whales feeding at the surface. Photo courtesy of Whale and Dolphin Coservation, taken by Karolina Jasinska.

Humpback whales feeding at the surface. Photo courtesy of Whale and Dolphin Coservation, taken by Karolina Jasinska.

The first, from BT.com, features a calf trying unsuccessfully to emulate its mother. The second is a clip from the Huffington Post from 2014. It features drone footage, a research tool growing in popularity because of the access it affords in watching whale behaviors.

As you view these clips please think about the whales’ habitat and how the actions of all us impact, positively or negatively, where they live. The simple action of properly disposing of trash so that it doesn’t get into waterways protects all ocean animals.

The oceans regulate planetary chemistry, dictate weather and climate, are the ultimate source of our drinking water (think water cycle) and cover nearly 3/4 of the planet’s surface. Despite the name ‘Earth’ we really are the water planet. It’s everyone’s responsibility to be stewards of our global ocean.

Whale Waste Does Not Go To Waste

An evocative and informative video clip, posted by Sustainable Human, complete with stunning footage of humpback whales, has been released to laud the biological benefits of whale waste. The key point is that as whales release their waste, the iron in their fecal matter spurs the photosynthesis performed by phytoplankton. This phytoplankton is food for zooplankton and other filter feeders. The phytoplankton also traps carbon dioxide. If those phytoplankters die, they sink to the bottom thus removing the CO2 from circulation.

Humpback whales feeding at the surface. Photo courtesy of Whale and Dolphin Coservation, taken by Karolina Jasinska.

Humpback whales feeding at the surface. Photo courtesy of Whale and Dolphin Coservation, taken by Karolina Jasinska.

This video introduces the story in an eye-catching manner. Robert Krulwich, co-host of NPR’s RadioLab, then does a great job of elaborating on the concept of whale feces providing the iron necessary to support this phytoplankton that generate much of the energy at the beginning of marine food webs. He also gives credit to Dr. Victor Smetacek from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research for first considering the connection between an iron-poor environment like the Antarctic and the enormous animals that were successful in finding ample food supplies in such a contradictory environment.

The connections between organisms are more complex than simple food chains, even though it is certainly much easier to explain the relationships as linear patterns.  Phytoplankton are eaten by more than 80 species of krill, 15,000+ species of copepod, thousands of species of fish, many of the shellfish we eat, and countless other species.  These food webs are the most robust when all levels, especially those considered to be the top of these trophic relationships are allowed to flourish. Removing something as significant as whales not only changes the dynamics within ocean ecosystems, it creates changes that belie our expectations.

Remarkable Photographs

Here’s a great way to start the week, with some excellent photography and a Guinness world record.  The waters of New England are too plankton rich to allow for such pictures. Of course, the plankton is the reason why the whales come to MA coastal waters to feed. That microalgae creates the energy needed for the food chains that support our feeding whales. It just makes cetacean photography a bit more challenging.

From The Daily Telegraph, Nine whales captured in a single frame by Australian underwater photographer Darren Jew: AUSTRALIAN underwater photographer Darren Jew waited decades to capture these magnificent images of whales swimming with free-diving record-holder Ai Futaki off the coast of Tonga.

The last photo in the series is an excellent face-to-face image. You get a close-up view of the tubercles (the round bumps) on the whale’s head. Each tubercle has a sensory hair in it. Enjoy.

Nine whales captured in a single frame by Australian underwater photographer

 

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.

Right Whale Day Starts April Vacay!

Illustration: Dave Blanchette

Illustration: Dave Blanchette

The New Bedford Whaling Museum will kick off April vacation week kicks off with the annual Right Whale Day celebration on Monday, April 21. Every year, the Museum celebrates the highly endangered North Atlantic Right Whale and raises awareness of a species whose survival depends upon humans wisely using ocean resources. This family friendly event provides many fun learning activities for kids and adults, with a focus on fostering greater awareness and appreciation.

Guests are invited to walk inside a life-sized inflatable right whale and stand next to a life-sized inflatable right whale calf for a photo. Take the coastal obstacle course challenge where participants attempt to survive the dangers right whales face in their migrations. Test your observation skills by identifying individual whales based on their markings. Learn to draw a right whale with author/artist, Peter Stone. End the day with a slice of “right whale cake”. The fun starts at 10:00 a.m. under the massive right whale skeleton on permanent exhibit in the Jacobs Family Gallery.

Right Whale Day schedule:

10:00 a.m. – 1:15 p.m. – Right Whale Obstacle Course (presented by the Museum’s high school apprentices)

10:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. –  Go Inside the Inflatable Whale (presented by Whale and Dolphin Conservation)

10:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. –  Make Right Whale Magnets & Whale Origami (presented by the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance)

10:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. –  Right Whale Crafts & Learning Activities (presented by Museum docents & high school apprentices)

10:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. –  Inflatable Right Whale Calf, Right Whale Information  & Photo-Op with the Right Whale Calf (presented by the NOAA Office of Education)

11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. –  Right Whale Identification Activities (presented by Museum volunteers)

11:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. –  “Waltzes with Giants” readings with author/artist Peter Stone

12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m. – Learn to draw right whales with Peter Stone

1:35 p.m. –  Celebrate the now-permanent ‘Ship Strike Rule’ with some Right Whale cake

Vacation Week Activities –  Join the Museum throughout April vacation week for crafts, hands-on activities and lots of family fun. Participate in a highlights tour, go below deck on the world’s largest model whaleship, learn to throw a harpoon, create your own scrimshaw (with soap and shoe polish), and more.

The following April vacation week activities will take place from Tuesday, April 22 through Friday, April 25:

10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. – Free crafts and family activities. Create your own scrimshaw (using soap and shoe polish), throw a harpoon with our family-friendly harpoons and target rings, and more.

11:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. –  Participate in a 45-minute highlights tour with a Museum Docent. Tours leave from the front desk. (Regular admission rates apply)

10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. –  Free film “Ocean Frontiers: The Dawn of a New Era in Ocean Stewardship” in Cook Memorial Theater. “Ocean Frontiers” is an engaging, inspirational film that features four very different, but equally important success stories of ocean stewardship, including one that is taking place in Massachusetts Bay.

11:00 a.m. to Noon Go below deck on the Lagoda! (Regular admission rates apply)

Friday, April 25, from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. –  All aboard the Lagoda! Join the crew of Captain C. Weade on board the Lagoda for an adventure on the high seas! Travel the world, interact with new cultures, learn the ropes of a whaleship, and go a-whaling. (Regular admission rates apply).

Right Whale Day activities and April Vacation Week activities that take place in Jacobs Family Gallery, Cook Memorial Theater or on the Museum Plaza are FREE. Regular admission to all other galleries applies. Children must be accompanied by an adult. For more information, call 508-997-0064 or visit http://www.whalingmuseum.org/programs/april-vacation-week-2014.

 

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.