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Marine Mammal Skeletons Donated to ESF

Juvenile fin whale bones arrive at Illick Hall

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The skeleton of a juvenile fin whale, the second-largest animal on Earth, is part of a collection of marine mammal bones recently donated to ESF.

The fin whale's bones arrived on campus in late November and are being stored in Illick Hall while the college considers how to display and use them as part of its educational programs. The skeleton is part of a collection donated to the college by Dr. Thomas French, assistant director of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. Other forthcoming specimens include seals and dolphins, as well as the skeletons of an adult minke whale and a juvenile humpback whale.

"These specimens are a wonderful addition to our natural history collections," said Dr. Rebecca Rundell, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Forest Biology (EFB) and head curator of ESF's Roosevelt Wild Life Station. "Some will be displayed for the public to see, some will be used in organismal biology classes, such as mammalogy, marine ecology and comparative vertebrate anatomy. They will be used for hands-on learning and research."

ESF offers students a marine science minor. Specific display space for the whales is still under consideration.

The fin whale skeleton arrived on campus packed in a U-Haul truck driven by French. Rundell, Ronald Giegerich (Roosevelt Wild Life Station collections manager) and a crew of enthusiastic volunteer students unpacked the bones and stored them in Illick Hall, home to EFB.

Rundell said adult fin whales, which are endangered, can grow up to 80 feet in length. The only animal that grows larger is a blue whale. The fin whale at ESF, she said, washed up on the shore during a snowstorm, near Provincetown, on Cape Cod, in 2009. The whale unfortunately died a few hours after stranding. After it died, a necropsy was performed on it and scientists discovered its kidney was infested with kidney worms, which probably contributed to its death.

Afterward, French and a team of workers flensed the blubber from the fin whale and tried to extract and save as many parts as they could so people could continue to learn from the whale. French then meticulously worked on the bones, using flesh-eating beetles to clean them.

"Moving the bones through the many stages from 'dead whale' to cleaned and dry bones is an enormous undertaking," Rundell said. "That's part of the reason why so few people do it. We are extremely lucky to know a dedicated soul like Tom French who has made it his mission to make sure we learn the most we can from these animals-especially after they have died."

Rundell explained that the marine mammal stranding network in the Northeast, now part of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), is dedicated to trying to save as many of these animals as it can. One of the leaders in this effort is Misty Niemeyer, the necropsy coordinator for Marine Mammal Rescue and Research at IFAW, who also is generously donating many seals and dolphins to ESF's Roosevelt Wild Life Collections.

Rundell said, "Although the title 'necropsy coordinator' does not sound glamorous, a big part of what Misty Niemeyer does means that the lives of deceased whales, dolphins and seals serve a higher purpose - they provide valuable information that can help to save other members of their species." She explained, "Research and teaching collections such as the one we are developing help us learn from those animals that could not be saved. These specimens provide a wealth of knowledge to us, help educate the next generation of biologists and are important for getting the public engaged with the natural world that supports us all."