UNCW Department of Biology and Marine Biology Donates Specimen of Extinct Gray Whale to Smithsonian

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

When Rita and Tom McCabe began collecting seashells, fossils, and megalodon-tooth treasure on leisurely walks along the shore of West Onslow Beach in the 1970s, they gradually found a variety of larger bones. that they have kept in their garage for years. When Rita couldn’t stand the cluttered mess anymore, the McCabe’s called the UNCW Department of Biology and Marine Biology to see if she would be interested in donating.

“They drove a little Chevy S10 pickup around campus, and they had bones lying around all over the place,” recalls Dr. David Webster ’76, senior associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and UNCW professor since 39. year.

Little did they know, the McCabe’s had found the bones of a North Atlantic gray whale, a species of marine mammal that has been extinct for at least 400 years.

“At first we thought they were humpback whale bones, but looking closer and UNCW Marine Mammal Stranding Program Grown up under the guidance of Dr Ann Pabst and Mr William McLellan, we discovered what a rare specimen we had, ”recalled Webster. “At this point, we got very excited because there was very little scientific information on the NAGW population as they were no longer there.”

Housed in Friday Hall for decades, along with 30,000 other specimens currently on display, the skeleton is the world’s most complete specimen of a North Atlantic gray whale, consisting of 42 bones, including jaws, cranial bones , ribs, shoulders and upper and lower arm bones.

UNCW researchers – both staff and students – carried out years of forensic science on the whale specimen under Webster’s direction. Professor Alyson Fleming played the most important role in coordinating the documentation of the skeleton with Courtney Johnson, Associate Professor of Art and Art History, who photographed all of the individual and collective elements of the juvenile specimen. Additionally, students like Savannah Mynor ’21 have helped measure and document items and have conducted desk and background research over several semesters.

Researchers at UNCW have discovered through radiocarbon testing that the bones are at least 1,600 years old and were likely washed ashore after the young whale died of natural causes during a period of migration. They theorize that the carcass floated in the New River Inlet and ended up in nearby salt marshes. Some bones have tannin spots that trace their roots back to salt marsh grasses, while other bones have cut marks.

Dr David La Vere, professor in the Department of History, provided valuable insight into the culture in the Southeast region at the time. He assumes that the cut marks are most likely from Native Americans who fished and hunted along the coast who found the whale and skinned the carcass. Skinning involves removing skin and fat from a whale using knives or other tools like shovels or axes.

UNCW recently donated the skeleton to the Smithsonian Museum where it will be on permanent display at the National Museum of Natural History, and its origins will be recorded in the National Archives. A team of Smithsonian curators visited UNCW in November and took two days to carefully pack the bones, bring them back to the nation’s capital and place them safely in their new home in the NMNH Paleobiology Collection. .

In “A gray whale is heading for the Smithsonian”, an article published on the Smithsonian Ocean website that documents the transfer, author Alia Payne writes: “… the skull alone took four people and a rolling cart to transport.”

Scientists around the world will now be able to deepen their research on this marine mammal and the reasons for its extinction.

“We are good stewards in representing science as science is meant to be by donating this specimen to the museum,” said Webster. “The name UNCW will always be associated with this specimen because our specimen number is written in indelible ink on each bone.”

Rita and Tom McCabe are no longer living, but Webster speculates that they would be happy to know that their beach walk treasures are now in “America’s Best Collection” and may lead to new discoveries.

“I’m sure they’re just tickled pink,” he said. “They are probably saying, ‘Can you believe it? We have succeeded. “

–Krissy Vicky


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