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How to Build a Blue Whale Without Having Seen One: Part I

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The Museum’s first whale model went on exhibit in 1908 and was 76 feet long. The model was located in the Hall of the Biology of Mammals, which closed when the Hall of Ocean Life opened. Made of plaster, the model was not salvageable. Photo courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.

“Not too long ago a colleague in Canada called and told me that his museum was planning to build a whale and did I have any suggestions? I had only one—resign now and get yourself a nice university job.” - Richard Van Gelder

In 1959, with its centennial looming ten years down the road, the American Museum of Natural History decided to complete its Hall of Ocean Life, which had been neglected and left dormant like a “sleeping giant,” museum employees said, for many of the years it had been open.

One of the finishing touches they wanted was a new blue whale model to replace the current one, which was made of wood covered in papier?mâché and had been around since 1908. After almost ten years of aesthetic arguments, technical hurdles and construction delays—and Richard Van Gelder, the museum’s chairman of the Department of Mammalogy and the whale’s chief designer, resigning from the Ocean Life Committee twice, from the Museum once and nearly getting fired three times (the last time being just the day before the official unveiling of the whale)—they finally got one.

Plus-Size Model

The problems started with the fact that, when the museum first began planning the model in 1959, very few people had ever actually laid eyes on a live blue whale, or even a photo of a whole one; most pictures gave just a glimpse of some small portion of the animal—part of a back or a tail or a fin poking out from the ocean—and the first full-body, underwater live shots wouldn’t be taken until the mid-1970s. This included some of the men tasked with designing the model. “So far as accuracy was concerned, I couldn’t see much wrong with [the old model],” Van Gelder wrote in Whale on my Back, a recollection of the project, “mainly because I had never seen a blue whale.”

Faced with the same problem at the beginning of the century, both the AMNH and the Smithsonian Institution had sent teams to go see some whales. Both went to whaling stations in Newfoundland, Canada, waiting days or weeks before the whalers landed anything. Van Gelder’s whale-making predecessor merely took measurements and made his model off of those, but the Smithsonian team had spent several more weeks making plaster molds of the huge decomposing whale, cutting away the flesh and dismantling the skeleton. The results of their labor, more than 26,000 pounds of bone and plaster casts, were then shipped to Washington to be assembled.

For the new project, casting was deemed too expensive and impractical for the AMNH, and a replica seemed to be the better way to go once again. Rather than send someone back to Canada to find another whale and take new measurements, Van Gelder and his team used the whale at the British Museum—built on-site in 1938 out of wood, going off measurements taken from “whale #112,” a whalers’ catch that a museum expedition had seen in the Antarctic—as a template.

Van Gelder and his team consulted both the British whale and and the new Smithsonian whale, which was also based off the British one, frequently over the next few years for inspiration and accuracy. Using the British Museum's model as a guide, they settled on a design and decided that the model would hang from the hall’s ceiling, posed as if it were in a dive.

Don’t Leave Me Hanging

Problems started again soon after.

“Nothing must hang from the ceiling,” a museum higher-up told Van Gelder. “I don’t like things hanging on strings.”

Van Gelder tried to explain it would actually hang on wires, but it didn’t matter. Hanging the whale from anything was out of the question.

Van Gelder went back to his office and thought about how else they could display the whale. He wrote: “‘Make it out of rubber and fill it with helium,’ I thought, but put the idea aside. Too much like the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. Besides, we would probably have to anchor it with strings, and I didn’t know how far the string-ban went.”

Another museum higher-up approached him with a stringless plan. He suggested they build a pedestal in the middle of the hall, with a “gleaming chromium rod” jutting from it, and mount the whale on that. Van Gelder was not impressed with what he called the “lolly-pop concept,” and the other museum brass didn’t like it, either.

The Smithsonian had attached their whale directly to the wall, but Van Gelder, despite his interest in the model, called the display technique a “disgrace to the profession.” That the Smithsonian staff came in one morning to find that the whale’s head had detached from the body and fallen off the wall in the night did nothing to improve his opinion.

Van Gelder began to think about how one normally sees a whale: “Nothing more than a bit of fin, a puff of vapor, or a pair of flukes.” People didn’t see whole whales that often, and if they did, the whales were usually dead. To point out how few display options were available and highlight the absurdity of the string ban, Van Gelder half-jokingly proposed displaying the whale as if it were beached.

“I was shocked to learn,” he wrote, "that not only was the dead whale idea accepted, it was received enthusiastically.”

He’d made the mistake of presenting a plan that would cost the museum next to nothing, and soon found himself having to run with the idea and defend it from his heckling colleagues.

Van Gelder couldn’t bear to actually go through with the plan, but wasn’t sure how to get out of it. When another staffer suggested that it might be nice to add some models and recordings of the birds that would pick at a real whale carcass, a light bulb went off and Van Gelder knew how he’d undo the dead whale.

Not long after, it was Van Gelder’s turn to babysit a group of visiting museum donors. Over lunch, he explained to the Women’s Committee how the beached whale would look, sound and … smell.

“We are even planning something never done before,” he said. “A gentle breeze will waft the odor of the sea toward the visitors, to complete the attack on all the senses, and we are even going to try to simulate the odor of the decomposing whale, so that all can share in this wonderful experience in totality.”

After word of this got back to the bosses, the dead whale was out and Van Gelder was back to square one. The head of the Exhibition Department eventually saved him with a suggestion that had been sitting right under his nose. Van Gelder was “so brainwashed about anything hanging,” he wrote, that he would “never in a million years” have come up with the new idea. If they couldn’t hang the whale from the ceiling with strings, the exhibitor thought, they should just skip the strings and attach the whale directly to the ceiling.

And that's what they did.

Stay tuned for Part II, about the construction of the whale and the anus that wasn’t there.

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AMNH // R. Mickens
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science
What It’s Like to Write an Opera About Dinosaurs
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AMNH // R. Mickens

There are many challenges that face those writing the lyrics to operas, but figuring out what can rhyme with dinosaur names isn’t often one of them. But wrangling multisyllabic, Latin- and Greek-derived names of prehistoric creatures into verse was an integral part of Eric Einhorn’s job as the librettist behind Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt, a new, family-friendly opera currently running at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Created by On Site Opera, which puts on operas in unusual places (like Madame Tussauds Wax Museum) across New York City, in conjunction with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Pittsburgh Opera, Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt follows the true story of Rhoda Knight and her grandfather, the famous paleoartist Charles R. Knight.

Knight worked as a freelance artist for the American Museum of Natural History from 1896 until his death in 1953, creating images of extinct species that paved the way for how we imagine dinosaurs even now. He studied with taxidermists and paleontology experts and was one of the first to paint dinosaurs as flesh-and-blood creatures in natural habitats rather than fantastical monsters, studying their bones and creating sculptural models to make his renderings as accurate as contemporary science made possible.

In the 20-minute opera, singers move around the museum’s Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, performing among skeletons and even some paintings by Knight himself. Einhorn, who also serves as the director of On Site Opera and stage director for the opera, wrote the libretto based on stories about the real-life Rhoda—who now goes by Rhoda Knight Kalt—whom he met with frequently during the development process.

Soprano Jennifer Zetland (Rhoda) sings in front of a dinosaur skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History.
AMNH // R. Mickens

“I spent a lot of time with Rhoda just talking about her childhood,” he tells Mental Floss, gathering anecdotes that could be worked into the opera. “She tells this great story of being in the museum when they were unpacking the wooly mammoth,” he says. "And she was just there, because her grandfather was there. It's being at the foot of greatness and not even realizing it until later.”

But there was one aspect of Rhoda’s childhood that proved to be a challenge in terms of turning her story into a performance. “Unfortunately, she was a really well-behaved kid,” Einhorn says. “And that doesn't really make for a good opera.”

Knight Kalt, who attended the opera’s dress rehearsal, explains that she knew at the time that if she misbehaved, she wouldn’t be allowed back. “I knew that the only way I could be with my grandfather was if I was very quiet,” she says. “Sometimes he would stand for an hour and a half discussing a fossil bone and how he could bring that alive … if I had interrupted then I couldn't meet him [at the museum anymore].”

Though Knight Kalt was never an artist herself, in the fictionalized version of her childhood (which takes place when Rhoda is 8), she looks around the museum for the missing bones of the dinosaur Deinocheirus so that her grandfather can draw them. The Late Cretaceous dino, first discovered in 1965, almost didn't make it into the show, though. In the first draft of the libretto, the dinosaur Rhoda is searching for in the museum was a relatively new dinosaur species found in China and first unveiled in 2015—zhenyuanlong suni—but the five-syllable name proved impossible to rhyme or sing.

Rhoda Knight Kalt stands next to the head of a dinosaur.
Rhoda Knight Kalt
Shaunacy Ferro

But Einhorn wanted to feature a real dinosaur discovery in the opera. A paleontologist at the museum, Carl Mehling, suggested Deinocheirus. “There are two arms hanging right over there,” Einhorn says, gesturing across the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, “and until [recently] the arms were the only things that had ever been discovered about Deinocheirus.” Tying the opera back to an actual specimen in the museum—one only a few feet away from where the opera would be staged—opened up a whole new set of possibilities, both lyrically and otherwise. “Once we ironed that out, we knew we had good science and better rhyming words.”

As for Knight Kalt, she says the experience of watching her childhood unfold in operatic form was a little weird. “The whole story makes me laugh,” she says. But it was also a perfectly appropriate way to honor her grandfather. “He used to sing while he was painting,” she says. “He loved the opera.”

Performances of Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt will be performed at the American Museum of Natural History on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays until October 15. Performances are free with museum admission, but require a reservation. The opera will later travel to the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Pittsburgh Opera.

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iStock
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Animals
11 Buoyant Facts About Humpback Whales
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iStock

Humpback whales are some of the most intelligent animals on the planet. Hunted almost to extinction during the 19th and early 20th centuries, their populations are slowly recovering, and now they’re a favorite sight for whale-watchers. Here are 11 facts you might not have known about the mysterious marine giants, who are known for their acrobatics and for sidling right up alongside boats to get a good look at their human observers.

1. THEY’RE LONGER THAN A SCHOOL BUS.

North American school buses max out at about 45 feet long. Female humpback whales—which are larger than males—can be up to 60 feet long, and their pectoral fins alone can be 15 feet long. At birth, humpbacks weigh around 1 ton, doubling in size during their first year of life and eventually reaching up to 40 tons.

2. THEY HAVE HUGE MOUTHS.

In keeping with the rest of their bodies, their mouths are huge—their tongue alone is the size of a small car. But the opening to their throat is only about the size of a grapefruit, according to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, so they can’t swallow large prey. Instead, they eat krill, small fish, and plankton. They can eat up to a ton of food per day, according to the 2015 documentary Humpback Whales.

3. THOSE BUMPS ARE HAIR FOLLICLES.

Each of the distinctive bumps along a humpback’s head holds a single hair that the whale uses to sense the environment around it. These hairs help the whale glean information about water temperature and quality.

4. THEIR FLUKES ARE LIKE FINGERPRINTS.

Like human fingerprints, humpback tails can be used to identify individuals. The pigmentation and scarring on their flukes is unique, and scientists document these markings to keep track of certain whales that they see repeatedly during their research trips.

5. THEY LIVE A LONG TIME, BUT NOT AS LONG AS MANY OTHER WHALES.

Most humpback whales make it into their 60s, but scientists estimate that they may live up to 80 years. Still, that’s nothing compared to bowhead whales, a species whose oldest known individuals have lived to be 200 years old.

6. THEY HAVE THE LONGEST MIGRATIONS OF ANY MAMMAL.

Each year, humpbacks migrate from their feeding grounds in cold waters toward warm breeding areas—Alaskan whales head to Hawaii, while Californian whales head to Mexico and Costa Rica, and Australian whales migrate to the Southern Ocean. These biannual journeys can involve distances of up to 5000 miles, which is officially the longest known migration of any mammal on earth.

The fastest documented migration of a humpback whale was observed in 1988, when a humpback traveled from Sitka, Alaska to to Hawaii in just 39 days—or possibly less, depending on how soon it left Alaskan waters after the researchers sighted it the first time [PDF]. That’s a journey of about 2750 miles point to point.

7. THEY HAVE BEEN KNOWN TO DEFEND OTHER SPECIES FROM ORCAS.

In 2009, marine ecologist Robert Pitman watched two humpback whales rescue a seal from a group of orcas that were pursuing it. The seal ended up on one of the humpbacks’ chests, and when it began to fall off, the whale even nudged it back on with a flipper, indicating that it was an intentional act of altruism. Though it’s not entirely clear why they would do so, it appears to be an offensive response on the part of the humpbacks, who may intervene whenever they hear killer whales fighting, whether one of their own is involved or not.

8. ONLY THE MALES SING.

Their songs may have made the species famous, but not every humpback sings. It’s strictly a male behavior, and plays an important part in courtship displays. There’s plenty of mystery that still surrounds the science of whale songs, but in 2013, researchers discovered that it’s a group activity that involves even sexually immature males. Both young and mature whales sing in chorus, giving the immature whales a lesson in singing and courtship behavior, and helping older whales amplify their songs to draw females to the area from afar. Other research has found that these songs change over times, and whales learn them much like a human learns a new song, bit by bit.

9. BREACHING IS LIKE YELLING

Though humpbacks are famous for their songs, that’s not the only way they communicate. Scientists only recently discovered that breaching—when whales jump up into the air, crashing back down into the water—is a way to keep in touch with far-away friends. Humpbacks leap higher and more often than other whales, and while spectacular to witness, the moves come at a cost: It takes a lot of energy, especially when the whales are fasting. But after 200 hours observing humpbacks migrating past the Australian coast, a team from the University of Queensland found that the whales were more likely to breach when the nearest group of other humpbacks was more than two and a half miles away, and that they were more likely to do so when it was windy out. It appears that breaching is a way to communicate over long distances when there is a lot of competing noise.

10. THEIR SONGS ARE INCREDIBLY COMPLEX …

Humpback songs aren’t just showy. They have their own grammar, and their songs are hierarchical, like sentences. In human language, this means that the meaning of sentences depends on the clauses within them and the words within them. In 2006, mathematical analysis found that humpbacks use phrases, too. And they remix their tunes, too, tweaking them and changing them over time, often combining new and old melodies. Humpback songs have even been visualized as sheet music.

11. … AND HELPED END WHALING.

Researchers estimate [PDF] that prior to the whaling boom of the 19th and 20th centuries, there were around 112,000 humpbacks in the North Atlantic alone, but that by the time commercial whaling was banned in the region in 1955, there were less than 1000 individuals left. Between 1947 and the 1970s, the USSR alone killed an estimated 338,000 humpbacks, falsifying data it was required to submit to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling to disguise the illegal magnitude of its hunting operation. It has been called “one of the greatest environmental crimes of the 20th century.”

While the populations have grown and humpbacks have been taken off the endangered species list, some estimates put the worldwide humpback population at only 40 percent of what it was before the whaling era. Whaling was banned throughout the rest of the world in 1966, though Norway, Iceland, and Japan still practice it.

Roger Payne, one of the scientists who first discovered that humpbacks sing songs, later became instrumental in pushing to protect the species in the 1960s. In 1970, he released his recording of humpback songs as a record, which remains the best-selling nature recording in history. In 1972, the songs were played at a Greenpeace meeting, and ended up galvanizing a new movement: Save the Whales. “It certainly was a huge factor in convincing us that the whales were an intelligent species here on planet Earth and actually made music, made art, created an aesthetic,” as former Greenpeace director Rex Weyler told NPR in 2014. The campaign gained traction with other organizations, too, and helped lead to the International Whaling Commission’s 1982 whaling ban.

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