As you step into the fluorescent lights of the storehouse ahead, your eyes focus as otherworldly shapes take form in front of you. Suddenly you are surrounded by giants.
The National Museum of Natural History’s Garber building at the Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland, contains the largest collection of whale bones in the world. Skulls the size of cars are lined up on metal frames next to towers of spinal vertebrae laid out like 50-foot snakes in the center of the massive building. Researchers come from far and wide for a chance to study these specimens, and the discoveries that have come from within these walls have shaped our understanding of marine mammals.
To celebrate World Whale Day on February 19, let’s dive into this unique skeletal repository and learn how the collection serves the Smithsonian’s dual missions of scientific discovery and conservation.
Bones in Bulk
Whales have long been a focus of the Smithsonian’s natural history collection. Since the earliest bones were collected in the 1830s, the marine mammal collection has accumulated over 18,000 individual specimens; a number that continues to grow each year. “We are definitely the go-to museum for anyone doing whale research,” says John Ososky, a marine mammal specialist at the museum. “We are just way bigger and more diverse than anybody else as far as marine mammals go.”
While the towering bones are the centerpiece, the collection also includes samples of baleen, earwax, skin, and muscle. These specimens are loaded with DNA, which has contributed to the creation of the world’s largest whale biorepository.
Despite maintaining such a large collection, the curators are always on the lookout for new specimens. “We have almost every single species in the world,” says Michael McGowen, the museum’s curator of marine mammals. “But it’s good for us to take species that we already have, because researchers are doing interesting ecological studies in our collection.” These studies look back in time, highlighting the changes that whales have gone through over the last 200 years in an increasingly human-dominated world.
In just a few months, Ososky and McGowen will add a new Orca whale skeleton to the collection. The Orca recently beached on the east coast of Florida, making it the first to wash up there in more than 60 years.
A Skeletal Biography
Whale skeletons act as windows into the lives of these elusive giants. They give researchers clues about where the whales lived, what they ate, and even how they died. While the Smithsonian’s whale specimens now come from stranding networks and agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the earliest skeletons hail from an era dominated by whaling.
At the center of the storehouse sits the long spine of a North Atlantic right whale named “Tips.” Tips was hit by a ship, creating a wound that became infected and led to the buildup of reactive bone on one of his vertebrae. Countless whales have been killed in similar ways, and “studying these pathologies and anomalies that come up can tell you a lot about the health of whale populations across time,” says Ososky.
The Smithsonian Institution has fiercely advocated for whale conservation since the beginning. Remington Kellogg, the director of the Natural History Museum in the mid-1900s, helped to create the International Whaling Commission, which helped regulate whaling practices and conserve whales across the globe.Surrounded by Giants
At the center of the expansive repository sit two tree-trunk sized bones that curve together into an oval. These bones belong to a South Atlantic blue whale collected in the mid-1900s. Weighing a ton each, they are thought to be the two largest bones in any museum collection in the world according to Ososky.
Blue whales are much rarer these days after whaling decimated their populations. This skeleton illustrates the size that the ocean’s largest giants can achieve.
New Species Hiding in Plain Sight
Not all new species are discovered on expeditions to the middle of the ocean. In fact, researchers have discovered several new whale species sitting on the shelves of museum collections. Many are cryptic species that look similar to another known species despite diverging long ago in their evolutionary history.
Because the Smithsonian’s whale collection houses a multitude of rare and endangered specimens, it’s served as a hotbed for cetacean discoveries. “We do have individuals, especially some of our beaked whales, that represent the only specimens of that species that exist,” says McGowen, who recently helped to identify a new species called Ramari’s beaked whale in 2021. Both McGowen and Ososky think that more new species are in the collection waiting to be described.
Conservation on Exhibit
In January of 2019 an adult whale belonging to a new species was found beached in the Florida Everglades after swallowing a sharp piece of plastic. The specimen was transported to the Smithsonian, giving researchers their first look at a new whale endemic to North America. The species was named the Rice’s whale, after Smithsonian Research Associate and whale specialist Dale Rice. Currently, NOAA estimates that there are less than 50 Rice’s whales left in the Gulf of Mexico, the only place Rice’s whales are found on Earth.
This October, a new display in the museum’s Objects of Wonder exhibition will highlight the new species and celebrate 50 years of the Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection Acts. The exhibit will also feature the plastic swallowed by the whale and a piece of the baleen that helped researchers study the whale’s life.
The display will illustrate the importance for conservation efforts to protect the critically endangered Rice’s whale. “Whales are a symbol of ocean health," Ososky said. "By saving whales we can save everything.”
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