Newly Acquired Whale Skull a “Missing Link”

Marine mammals expert Charles Potter has big plans for his newest acquisition

A recently acquired whale skull will likely provide information about the more recent evolution of the North Atlantic right whale. Photo by the New England Aquarium

No, not that missing link, but marine mammal collection manager at the Smithsonian Charles Potter still thinks the new whale skull warrants the title. Potter explains that while his collections include specimens from thousands, even millions, of years ago and more modern whale samples, this new addition dates from an underrepresented middle range circa the 17th century.

The skull, all 350 pounds of it, arrived at the Natural History Museum Monday, July 30, after a long trip from Brewster, Massachusetts in the back of a pickup truck. Unpacking it on Tuesday, Potter said he was pleasantly surprised to see the artifact had made the journey.

And what a journey it was. The beach resort where the skull was first found peeking out from an eroding dune toyed with the idea of keeping it for a display, says Potter. Though Potter knew that option was perfectly illegal, he says, “Rather than just walk up there and yank out our permit like a winning poker hand, we worked with the resort to try and convince them that it would really be better off back in our collection.”

Getting it back to the museum, however, was its own challenge. “When we looked at it up there, we really sat back and spent a good portion of that morning just poking at it and prodding it,” says Potter, “trying to determine if we should even move it from where it was.” With help from Harvard, Potter was able to wrap the skull in foams of varying densities for the ride. Badly eroded, the skull is so fragile Potter says he worried it would simply disintegrate.

Even in its delicate condition, the fossil, likely from a North Atlantic right whale, still promises a wealth of new information. Potter explains, “I look at this thing as being a time capsule that holds all kinds of information that we don’t even know about.” He says the item will serve as a Rosetta Stone for future generations, likening it to the collection’s fragments gathered prior to the discovery of DNA. “Today,” Potter says of those past acquisitions, “these specimens have proved to be so critical in our understanding of the evolution of these animals and the conservation issues that are before us today.” He forecasts this new find will play a similar role.

“This is going to give us some information on what the oceanographic conditions, which are a proxy for understanding the climate, were like at the time the pilgrims were landing.”

Potter and his team are still working on verifying the identification of the species first made by the Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute. Once that’s completed, they’ll partner with the National Zoo to use X-ray technology to identify viable locations on the specimen to use for further research. He hopes to, through the measurement of stable isotopes, deduce the whale’s diet, as well as the water temperature of the ocean, its salinity and other basic oceanographic conditions.

Comparing this information to what Potter has gleaned from more modern whale specimens will help provide a much more immediate picture of recent climate and evolutionary changes.

The skull will remain in the Smithsonian’s research collection. Potter jokes that the choice to send it to the Smithsonian was obvious, “because we live at the center of the universe!”




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