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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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Courtesy Murdoch University
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Animals
Australian Scientists Discover First New Species of Sunfish in 125 Years
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Courtesy Murdoch University

Scientists have pinpointed a whole new species of the largest bony fish in the world, the massive sunfish, as we learned from Smithsonian magazine. It's the first new species of sunfish proposed in more than 125 years.

As the researchers report in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, the genetic differences between the newly named hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta) and its other sunfish brethren was confirmed by data on 27 different samples of the species collected over the course of three years. Since sunfish are so massive—the biggest can weigh as much as 5000 pounds—they pose a challenge to preserve and store, even for museums with large research collections. Lead author Marianne Nyegaard of Murdoch University in Australia traveled thousands of miles to find and collected genetic data on sunfish stranded on beaches. At one point, she was asked if she would be bringing her own crane to collect one.

Nyegaard also went back through scientific literature dating back to the 1500s, sorting through descriptions of sea monsters and mermen to see if any of the documentation sounded like observations of the hoodwinker. "We retraced the steps of early naturalists and taxonomists to understand how such a large fish could have evaded discovery all this time," she said in a press statement. "Overall, we felt science had been repeatedly tricked by this cheeky species, which is why we named it the 'hoodwinker.'"

Japanese researchers first detected genetic differences between previously known sunfish and a new, unknown species 10 years ago, and this confirms the existence of a whole different type from species like the Mola mola or Mola ramsayi.

Mola tecta looks a little different from other sunfish, with a more slender body. As it grows, it doesn't develop the protruding snout or bumps that other sunfish exhibit. Similarly to the others, though, it can reach a length of 8 feet or more. 

Based on the stomach contents of some of the specimens studied, the hoodwinker likely feeds on salps, a jellyfish-like creature that it probably chomps on (yes, sunfish have teeth) during deep dives. The species has been found near New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and southern Chile.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Gregory H. Revera, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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Space
Study Suggests There's Water Beneath the Moon's Surface
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Gregory H. Revera, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Astronauts may not need to go far to find water outside Earth. As CNN reports, Brown University scientists Ralph E. Milliken and Shuai Li suspect there are significant amounts of water churning within the Moon’s interior.

Their findings, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, lean on the discovery of glass beads encased in the Moon’s volcanic rock deposits. As recently as 100 million years ago, the Earth’s moon was a hotbed of volcanic activity. Evidence of that volatile time can still be found in the ancient ash and volcanic rock that’s scattered across the surface.

Using satellite imagery, the researchers identified tiny water droplets preserved inside glass beads that formed in the volcanic deposits. While water makes up a small fraction of each bead, its presence suggests there’s significantly more of it making up the Moon’s mantle.

Milliken and Li aren't the first scientists to notice water in lunar rocks. In 2008, volcanic materials collected from the Moon during the Apollo missions of 1971 and 1972 were revealed to contain the same water-flecked glass beads that the Brown scientists made the basis of their recent study. They took their research further by analyzing images captured across the face of the Moon and quickly saw the Apollo rocks represented a larger trend. "The distribution of these water-rich deposits is the key thing," Milliken said in a press statement. "They're spread across the surface, which tells us that the water found in the Apollo samples isn't a one-off. Lunar pyroclastics seem to be universally water-rich, which suggests the same may be true of the mantle."

The study challenges what we know about the Moon's formation, which scientists think occurred when a planet-sized object slammed into the Earth 4.5 billion years ago. "The growing evidence for water inside the Moon suggests that water did somehow survive, or that it was brought in shortly after the impact by asteroids or comets before the Moon had completely solidified," Li said. "The exact origin of water in the lunar interior is still a big question."

The findings also hold exciting possibilities for the future of space travel. NASA scientists have already considered turning the Moon into a water station for astronauts on their way to Mars. If water on the celestial body is really as abundant as the evidence may suggest, figuring out how to access that resource will definitely be on NASA's agenda.

[h/t CNN]

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