Bonehenge – Community action in science outreach

The following is a repost from the old Southern Fried Science WordPress blog. The original can be found here.


If a 33.5 foot Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus) stranded on your beach, what would you do with it? Leave it to rot? Drag it out to sea? Blow it up? Keith Rittmaster of the North Carolina Maritime Museum decided to do one better.

This blog has never been known for heaping praise on marine mammals, but these creatures are the exception. Sperm whales are extremely strange animals. There are some fantastic online resources available that do a great job covering basic sperm whale biology, so I’d like to skip the intro and talk about some sperm whale features I find fascinating.

Although they are the largest of the toothed whales, the teeth in their upper jaw do not erupt through the gums, and the teeth in their lower jaw are only barely exposed. Sperm whales feed like vacuums, essentially sucking squid into their mouths. The teeth and lower jaws are highly reduced. The two unfused mandibles are delicate. There have been apocryphal reports from whalers of healthy sperm whales with no lower jaw at all. Clearly there is something very different going on with the modern evolution of the sperm whale jaw.

But the jaw isn’t the only evolutionary oddity in the sperm whale’s arsenal. One of the many lines of evidence for the Theory of Evolution is the existence of detached pelvic bones found in whales. These bones are the remnants of the whale’s terrestrial legs. In male sperm whales, these bones provide some of the attachment points for the penis, however, the number of pelvic bones vary from individual to individual. Some have fragments of the hip, some have both hip and femur, all buried inside the animal’s body and detached from the rest of the skeleton. This lack of character retention indicates that there is almost no selective pressure to maintain these bones, yet another indicator that these are vestigial organs slowly drifting into evolutionary oblivion.

In January, 2004, a sperm whale stranded at Cape Lookout. After the initial necropsy, Rittmaster decided the best course of action would be to bury the carcass and exhume the skeleton several years later for display. The teeth were removed from the jaw before burial to prevent theft and one flipper was removed for x-rays. Several years later, the skeleton was exhumed and the skull submerged in a maceration pond for further decomposition.

Sperm whales are the deepest diving marine mammals, capable of submerging down to 2,000 meters. Despite their impressive adaptations to survival in the ocean, these whales still get the bends. Cracks and nodules in their bones indicate damage caused by extreme pressure and the expansion of compressed air. These bones are incredibly oily, making them buoyant and moderately resistant to pressure. This also makes them very hard to clean and seal for display. After a multi-year burial, the still-oily bones were sent to a specialized vapor degreaser to be cleaned.

Dozens of volunteers from the community are aiding in this endeavor, and it is far from over. A building was needed to prepare and rearticulate the bones, so a private citizen donated their land to the project and the community came together to build a custom-made pole barn in the course of 7 days. This structure was built to support the entire skeleton, complete with educational displays, and was raised entirely by volunteers, volunteers who feel strongly enough about the value of this project to donate a week of their time and labor to build Bonehenge .

Once finished and relocated at the NC Maritime Museum, this display will give students and the general public unparalleled access to one of the most magnificent creatures in the ocean, but the work is not done. Recovering the bones, cleaning them, building the structure all cost money. To fund the final stage of the process, is soliciting donations by ‘selling’ bones. All donors will get their name on a plaque, and there are a range of bones to ‘buy’.

This is a massive undertaking, and it has been accomplished by the dedication of volunteers committed to making science more accessible to the public. My dream is that these kinds of events become so common that they are no longer notable; that creative and enthusiastic people like Keith Rittmaster get the support and resources necessary to accomplish their goals.

~Southern Fried Scientist