How a Whale Skull at the Smithsonian Became a Beacon for Marine Mammal Conservation

Take a dive into the museum’s marine mammal collection and learn how a rare North American whale is racing against extinction

A black plate of whale baleen is lit up against a dark background with brown hair-like material coming from the bottom of the specimen.
This plate of baleen came from the critically endangered Rice’s whale, which is the only species of baleen whale to live exclusively in the waters of North America.  James D. Tiller and Fred Cochard, Smithsonian

With more than 148 million specimens and objects in its collection, the vast majority of the National Museum of Natural History’s specimens are off display. But each of these specimens — whether it be a moth, meteorite, moss or mammoth — tells a story that helps museum researchers make sense of the natural world. Each month, the Specimen Spotlight series will highlight a different specimen or object from the world’s largest natural history collection to shed light on why we collect.


Deep within the National Museum of Natural History’s marine mammal collection, resting between shelves of substantial vertebrae and rows of colossal ribs, sits the tawny, weathered skull of a large whale.  While the specimen looks strikingly similar to the dozens of other oversized whale crania lining the storeroom’s walls, this skull is one of a kind.  It tells the story of one of the world’s most endangered animals, serving as a grim reminder that the fate of its species is hanging on by a thread.

The towering skull of one of the world’s most endangered species resides in the museum’s marine mammal collection.  As the only complete, adult specimen of its kind, the skull has been researched by scientists from around the world.   James Di Loreto, Brittany M. Hance, Phillip R. Lee and Rosa Pineda, NMNH

Growing to roughly 40 feet long and tipping the scale at around 30 tons, Rice’s whales are one of the planet’s rarest species of baleen whales. This is because Rice’s whales only reside in the crowded waters of the Gulf of Mexico where oil spills, ship traffic, ocean noise, marine debris, offshore energy exploration and entanglement in fishing gear are part of their daily lives. Over time, these hazards have threatened their populations as their numbers have dwindled.

“These whales are very endangered,” said Michael McGowen, the museum’s curator of marine mammals.  “Right now, there are 100 or fewer Rice’s whales left in the wild, and we could lose them.”

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act and celebrate the museum’s upcoming Rice’s whale symposium, Smithsonian Voices dove into the history of the Smithsonian’s Rice’s whale skeleton to learn how this unique specimen has raised the profile of marine conservation efforts in the US and beyond.

Marine mammal experts from around the world gather at the museum on Nov. 16 to discuss conservation efforts for the Rice’s whale, along with North Pacific right whales (Eubalaena japonica) and North Atlantic right whales (E. glacialis), which face similar threats from human activities. NOAA

Nautical Nomenclature

The Rice’s whale has been known to science since the 1960s, when researchers first noticed the marine giants in the Gulf.  Previously categorized as a sub-species of the closely related Bryde’s whale, research conducted by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists in 2014 revealed that Rice’s whales are genetically distinct.  However, it wasn’t until 2021 that this marine mammal was finally recognized as a new species.

Within the field of biology, a new species cannot be named without a holotype specimen—a single sample that is used to represent the species for the entire scientific community.  Researchers finally found a holotype-worthy Rice’s whale specimen in 2019 when the body of a 38-foot adult whale was stranded on the beaches of Sandy Key in the Florida Everglades.

In 2019, this Rice’s whale skeleton was transported to Bonehenge Whale Center in North Carolina, where it was buried in composting material to finish decomposing before arriving at the Smithsonian’s collections facility.  Bonehenge Whale Center

When NMNH marine mammal specialist John Ososky heard that the whale had been discovered, he was prepared to move mountains to make sure it ended up in the Smithsonian’s collections.  Following its stranding, the whale’s remains were moved to North Carolina’s Bonehenge Whale Center, where it was buried to finish decomposing. Once the whale’s skeleton was exhumed from its temporary resting place, Ososky and a team of NOAA researchers loaded the carcass into a large trailer and began a very unusual road trip back to the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center.

After months of meticulous cleaning in the Smithsonian’s Osteo Prep lab, NOAA and NMNH scientists began conducting genetic, physical and ecological research on the specimen, noting numerous subtle differences compared to Bryde’s whale skeletons.  This resulted in a 2021 publication that described the whale as a new species, officially named Balaenoptera ricei, after prominent marine mammal scientist Dale Rice.

An Exhibition for Conservation

On Nov. 15, a new exhibition case went on display in the museum’s Sant Ocean Hall featuring a plate of baleen that was used for conservation research (see the image at top of the story) and this piece of plastic, which is presumed to have killed the Rice’s whale specimen. James D. Tiller and Fred Cochard, NMNH

A plate of Baleen and a piece of plastic sit side by side in the museum’s newest display in the Sant Ocean Hall.  While the two objects may look unassuming, they are key pieces that have helped researchers understand both the life and death of the only adult Rice’s whale specimen held in a museum collection.

Every whale has a life history timeline hidden within its baleen, which is made of calcified keratin.  This structure remains sturdy even through constant exposure to salt water, and holds DNA, hormones, stable isotopes and toxins that can be analyzed by scientists to unlock information that is critical for long-term conservation plans.  Researchers at George Mason University and the University of Rhode Island took samples at short intervals along the Rice’s whale’s baleen to determine whether the animal had switched prey, moved to different parts of the ocean or ingested harmful pollutants.

John Ososky and a NOAA researcher examine the skeleton of the Rice’s whale. Smithsonian Institution

McGowen and Ososky found that the whale experienced high stress levels during its final year of life, possibly due to the bright, orange piece of plastic that was found lodged in its gut.  According to pathologists from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, the plastic caused ulceration and hemorrhaging in the digestive tract of the whale, leading to emaciation and likely death.

“Every Rice’s whale that I know of died from some form of human interaction, and if nothing changes they are on a path to extinction,” Ososky said.  “But we caused the problem, and we can fix it.  So I think there is still hope for this species.”

A Symposium to Save the Rice’s Whale

While the life of the Rice’s whale may sound like a story of doom and gloom, scientists from across the globe are working to develop conservation and management plans that can help safeguard this species in the future.  On Nov. 16, the Smithsonian is holding a scientific symposium that will focus on the Rice’s whale and commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act.

“By protecting Rice’s whales and other marine mammals we can protect entire ocean ecosystems.” — John Ososky, NMNH Marine Mammal Specialist

Co-sponsored by NOAA Fisheries and the Marine Mammal Commission, the symposium will feature lectures and discussions highlighting new research from experts who have pioneered marine mammal conservation techniques.  The collaborative event will also call attention to other endangered whales in North America that are facing similar threats from human activities.

Genetic testing has revealed that Rice’s whales have both a small population size and low genetic diversity, but raising awareness about the threats this species is facing will help to direct management plans in the future. NOAA

Despite their dwindling numbers, McGowen and Ososky are both hopeful that Rice’s whales will persevere for generations to come.  Earlier this year, NOAA Fisheries scientists announced a proposed designation to set aside over 28,000 square miles in the Gulf of Mexico as critical habitat for the whales.  The Smithsonian’s continued efforts to research the Rice’s whale holotype specimen will provide new information to assist the formation and continuation of these management plans in the coming years.

“The Rice’s whale is newly described, critically endangered and at least at this time, only occurs in the waters of the United States,” said Ososky.  “They are our collective responsibility as a country.”

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