By Mark Carnall, Life Collections
Followers of our Once in a Whale blog a while back may be aware of the huge task that faced our Life Collections conservator Bethany Palumbo and her team as they set out to clean, restore and repair the whale skeletons that hang from the Museum roof.
In my first week here, I received an enquiry about the history of these specimens, and digging through the archives I was pleased to find that they are not just ‘prop’ skeletons acquired for the purpose of display – they are important in the history of whale biology too. So this article is something of a postscript to the Once in a Whale project.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that much was understood about the science of the largest animals to have lived on Earth. Some species were known from strandings; others from accounts – varying in reliability – from fishermen.
Yet difficulties in preserving and transporting such large creatures (as well as the penchant for eating stranded whales at community festivals) meant that the biology and behaviour of whales was poorly-described and documented until fairly recently. So much so, that in early scientific literature just a few scientists are singled out as having actually seen the animals they were studying.
In the Museum there are five whale skeletons suspended from the roof, along with the skull of a Humpback Whale and the mandible of a Sperm Whale. Some of the earliest ‘whaleologists’ made the trip to Oxford to see these specimens in a race to formally describe new species or new aspects of whale biology.
In particular, two 19th-century anatomists competed to make new discoveries about whales. Dr John Edward Gray, keeper of zoology at the British Museum (Natural History), and Professor Daniel Frederick Eschricht, a Danish comparative anatomist, were so competitive that Gray made sniping comments in formal papers, questioning Eschricht’s observations.
But perhaps this competition was more sporting than malicious: Gray did name the gray whale, Eschrichtius robustus, in Daniel Eschricht’s honour.
Eschricht actually presented the Museum with two of the specimens now on display: the Humpback Whale skull at the entrance and the suspended Minke Whale skeleton. Of the others, the Bottlenose Dolphin skeleton was caught near Holyhead in 1868 and was drawn by another notable natural historian, William Henry Flower, before being skeletonised for the Museum.
The Orca skeleton is from an individual killed in the Bristol Channel by fishermen in 1872, and the Beluga Whale was collected from Spitsbergen, Norway in 1881 and presented by Alfred Henge Cocks, who donated a range of mammal specimens to the University of Oxford.
The female Northern Bottle-nosed Whale skeleton has been harder to track down. It’s possibly a specimen shot in Weston Super-Mare in 1860 mentioned by Gray, but it isn’t clear. Lastly, there’s the large Sperm Whale mandible that greets visitors at the entrance. It doesn’t have much of a recorded history, but is allegedly one of the largest specimens in the UK according to a ‘researcher’ whom I’ve yet to track down.
The next time you are in the Museum, do look up: the skeletons there are not simply representing ‘whaleness’ but are also individual animals and important specimens in the early discovery and description of whale biology.