Museum Tourist: North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

This weekend the National Association of Science Writers held its annual meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina. This is a great event–there’s a full day of professional development, plus hundreds of science writers to socialize with and learn from. Saturday night there was an awards reception at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

As soon as I walked in, I saw a big right whale skeleton. Then I got up close and realized it was the skeleton of a whale I’d heard of. When I was reporting a story on how right whales’ behavior helps make them vulnerable to ship strikes, someone told me about this whale named “Stumpy” who biologists had tracked for decades. In 2004 she was found floating, dead, off the coast of North Carolina. You can see the broken bones on top of her head where a ship hit her.

The Raleigh paper did a story about Stumpy and her skeleton in January, when she was being reassembled. On Saturday there were people with drinks and hors d’oeuvres all around her, several of them trying to talk to me, so it was hard to get to some of the signs, and I didn’t realize that her male fetus’s skeleton is there, too.

We were in the museum’s new wing, called the Nature Research Center, which focuses on how scientists study the world. They had a nice display with a piece of her baleen. It showed how scientists had measured her growth, marking out the years like tree rings on the tough surface and drilling out a sample for each year. I imagine it’s really valuable for them to have this opportunity to study a whale that had been followed for so long. Here’s a story from the magazine at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution about the research they did on her skeleton, learning just what kind of force it takes to break a whale’s bone.

So while Stumpy was lost–and losing a single breeding female from that tiny population of just a few hundred whales is really bad news–at least she’s gotten to be some use to her species after death.