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Behind the Scenes of the Museum's Stellar Whale Collection

Pierre Poirier © Canadian Museum of Nature

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Among the 100 or so catalogued specimens in the museum's whale collection is this complete skeleton of a beluga (Delphinapterus leucas).

Pierre Poirier © Canadian Museum of Nature

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This 4.3 m (14 ft.) skull of a fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) is one of the highlights stored in the museum's large-skeleton room.

The enthralling Whales Tohorā exhibition has been enticing visitors to the Canadian Museum of since arriving in March 2012. This travelling show from New Zealand presents a rare chance to explore the diversity of whales and includes a unique attraction: two complete skeletons of sperm whales, the largest toothed predators on the planet.

These marvellous specimens will leave after September 3, 2012, but two floors down in the museum's RBC Blue Water Gallery is a permanent display of an even larger leviathan of the sea. The Canadian Museum of Nature's very own blue whale is a 19 m (65 ft.) skeleton of an adolescent that washed up on the shores of Newfoundland in 1975. Its 138 bones had been in storage for more than 20 years until it was unveiled in 2010, following an exhaustive effort to prepare it for public view.

Before its coming-out party, this whale's bones had shared space with about 100 or so other catalogued whale specimens in the large skeleton room at the museum's research and collections facility in Gatineau, Quebec.

Step into this climate-controlled space and eyes open wide at the diversity of the museum's whale collection. The 4.3 m (14 ft.) skull of an 18-year-old male fin whale, the lower mandible and ribs of an adult blue whale, a complete beluga skeleton and the vertebrae of an orca (killer whale) compete for floor space with other notable specimens.

"We have a good representation of both toothed and baleen whales, covering 13 species in all," explains Kamal Khidas, Ph.D., the museum's curator for vertebrates. All represent whales found in Canadian waters, with bones of familiar species such as the humpback sharing space with lesser known species such as the sei whale.

Skulls, ribs and vertebrae are some of the larger pieces available for study by researchers. Most were collected decades ago, when legislation protecting whales was minimal and conservation was not top of mind. In some cases, there are numerous specimens for the same species. Twelve skulls of minke whales, for example, allow for a comparative study of variation in this small species of baleen whale. There are also oddities, such as a two-pronged narwhal tusk (which is actually the whale's tooth!).

Labels on some specimens relate a story about their origins. The data with one narwhal tusk confirm it was collected in 1928 near Pond Inlet on Baffin Island by Rudolph Anderson, the museum's naturalist who took part in the seminal Canadian Arctic Expedition.

Then there are the thousands of research samples, whale parts that have not yet been sorted or studied to properly assess their value.

As an example, Dr. Khidas refers to the 1032 eardrums, known as tympanic bullae, that are stored in hundreds of plain brown boxes, stacked row upon row at the back of the skeleton room. He carefully lifts the lid on one and pulls out a fist-sized bone that is rounded like a small conch shell. Why so many? Whales are the only mammals with an eardrum that is detached from the skull. Each one provides a distinct diagnostic blueprint to identify the whale's age, sex and species, so they are a great tool for scientists to study whale diversity.

These bones relate an important story of biological diversity over time, but there's more to the collection—the Canadian Museum of Nature also has thousands of whale parts acquired from the Arctic Biological Station of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. These soft-tissue specimens were gathered around the eastern Arctic over a period of close to 46 years before the station closed in 1992. In addition to internal organs such as kidneys, spleens and ovaries, there are eyes and even stomach contents from the whales' meals.

While Dr. Khidas recognizes their value, he acknowledges that years of work will be needed to scientifically examine, assess and catalogue these samples. One thing is certain though: "I think it's fair to say that the diversity and quality of material in our whale collection ranks it among the best in the world," he says.