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From UNCW to the Smithsonian: the decades-long journey of extinct gray whale bones

Elly Cosgrove reports: the massive exhibit is the most complete skeleton of the extinct species.
Published: Jan. 17, 2022 at 10:51 AM EST

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Finding treasures on the beach like shells, shark teeth or sea life is always a welcome surprise.

Decades ago in the 1970s, Rita and Tom McCabe’s walks along the shoreline of West Onslow Beach led to a collection curated by the surf, but something stands out more than the shells or sea glass.

“They walked the beach every morning and they started collecting whale bones,” said Dr. David Webster, senior associate dean for the College of Arts and Sciences and UNCW professor of 39 years. “That’s the excitement of paleontology: those bones exist it’s just do you know where to go to find them?”

The couple kept those bones in their garage, but eventually, “his wife said you’ve got to get the bones out of the garage,” according to Webster.

That’s when the Rita and Tom McCabe decided to donate their collection of bones to UNCW.

Webster remembers the image well: “[Tom McCabe] came down one day with a Chevy S10 pickup truck and bones were all hanging out of the sides.”

Webster was the keeper of those bones in the decades that followed, but he had no idea how special the collection in his care actually was.

“Probably for the first thirty years we really weren’t sure what it was,” he said. “We assumed it was a humpback whale because some of the bones that we could identify were humpback whale.”

It was eventually discovered that while some of the bones in the collection did indeed belong to a humpback whale, most belonged to the extinct North Atlantic gray whale.

“Eventually one of our marine mammologists looked at one of the jaw bones and said, ‘you know, that’s a gray whale.’ And my eyes immediately got large I’m sure and my mind started racing because I’m thinking, ‘well they’re not here anymore,’” Webster said.

A visit from a fossil marine mammal curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History confirmed the findings. As an added bonus, the bones actually made up the most complete skeleton of the species of any collection in the world.

UNCW and Dr. Webster decided to gift the specimen to the Smithsonian.

“When you find something that is that special, it needs to be in a collection that’s going to stand the test of time,” Webster said.

However, getting those bones to their final resting place... easier said than done. Think lots of bubble wrap, strength and caution. The Smithsonian sent two representatives down from its paleontology department, one person that works with dinosaurs and one that works with marine mammals, along with a large van to help with the move.

David Bohaska is the Smithsonian collections specialist that works with marine mammals. He said that while all the bones made it to Washington, D.C. without any damage — it was still a nerve-racking trip.

“It does make you very aware of road conditions. I mean we really, I think, wrapped it well. All the bones were individually wrapped,” Bohaska said. “Every bump you hit is like ‘oh no!’”

Now the bones are in the nation’s best library for these kinds of materials, said Dr. Alyson Fleming, a lead researcher at UNCW who was heavily involved in coordinating the documentation of the specimen and connecting UNCW with the Smithsonian.

“That is really sort of the nation’s library for these kind of materials and so when any scientist thinks, ‘oh I might have a question about this particular species or I’d love to do any kind of collections-based work,’ the Smithsonian is always the place you’ll think of,” Fleming said.

Now that the bones are a part of the “nation’s best library,” it means that scientists and researchers will be able to study them for decades or centuries to come — with potentially new tools in hand.

“We have so many chemical and technical tools that we can use to look at bones like this or look at the genetics of them or look at the chemistry of them — and that can tell researchers across the world about what these animals were eating or what was the ecosystem like thousands of years ago or what was their behavior and migration,” Fleming said. “There’s always going to be more and more tools that are being developed and by putting this in sort of the nation’s best library we ensure that it’s there for decades to come and who knows how many cool tools that will come up and be able to analyze these bones in new ways that we haven’t thought of yet.”

All of that research could help solve one of the big questions still unanswered.

“It’s always been this mystery of like, ‘what happened to the North Atlantic gray whale?,’” Fleming said. “And so having such a complete record of one is so valuable to try and answer hopefully more about that mystery.”

The North Atlantic gray whale went extinct in modern history too — about 300 years ago.

This specific specimen is likely almost 1,000 years old, according to Fleming.

A UNCW release says that the whale “probably washed ashore after the young whale died of natural causes during a migration period. They theorize that the carcass floated into the New River Inlet and ended up in the nearby salt marshes. Some of the bones have root stains that are traced back to the salt marsh grasses, while other bones have cut marks on them”

The bones will most likely not go on display at the Smithsonian, but will be available for scientists and researchers from around the world to study.

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