22 Things We Learned from AMNH's Whales: Giants of the Deep Exhibition

Image credit: 
AMNH/D. Finnin

Tomorrow, New York City's American Museum of Natural History opens up its newest exhibition, Whales: Giants of the Deep. The exhibit, which was developed and originated at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, explores whale evolution and biology, the human relationship with whales, and the history of whaling in New Zealand and beyond. It has two articulated sperm whale skeletons (one nearly 60 feet long), a life-sized replica of a blue whale heart, and numerous interactive exhibits that allow visitors to hear whale sounds, hunt like a sperm whale, and find out how whales eat. Here are just 22 things we learned from our visit. 

1. The 3-foot-long skull below is the only part of an ancient whale relative, Andrewsarchus mongoliensis, that has ever been found. (AMNH's Kan Chuen Pao made the discovery in Inner Mongolia in 1923.) This land-dwelling creature, which lived 45 million years ago, walked on all fours and probably had hooves. Photo courtesy of AMNH/R. Mickens.

2. Scientists have conducted genetic research to confirm that whales and hoofed mammals are related.

3. Another ancient whale ancestor, Ambulocetus natans, heard through its lower jawbone; sound passed through the bone into soft tissues that led to the ear.

4. The earliest known ancestor of modern whales is Pakicetus attocki. This wolf-sized creature lived about 50 million years ago near a large shallow ocean and ate fish. Photo of whale ancestors' skeletons courtesy of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

5. Whales typically mate belly to belly.

6. Male beaked whales have a tusk-like tooth; scientists use the tooth’s characteristics to determine what species of whale it is.

7. At just 5 feet long, the Hector’s dolphin—native to New Zealand—is the world’s smallest dolphin. 

8. Male sperm whales have teeth lining their lower jaws, but they don’t use them for eating—they use them for fighting. Photo courtesy of AMNH/D. Finnin.

9. Humpback whales’ flippers can grow up to 19 feet long.

10. A male sperm whale’s head can account for a third of its fully grown size—and its head is mostly nose. (They have the world’s largest.)

11. To produce sound, dolphins force air through flaps of fat and gristle called “monkey lips.” Sound goes out into the water through the fatty tissue of the forehead, called the "melon." 

12. Baleen comes in two flavors—fine and coarse—and its texture is determined by what a whale eats. Right whales, for example, have finer baleen, because they eat tiny zooplankton; Gray whales have coarser baleen, because they sift through sediment from the ocean bottom in search of crustaceans. Photo courtesy of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

13. In the ancient Middle East, ambergris—a substance produced in the intestines of sperm whales—was used as a spice.

14. Sperm whales don’t vomit up ambergris, as you may have heard. Since it's formed in the intestines, it's usually passed as fecal matter. 

15. In Māori culture, whale bones are used to make weapons, combs, and other status-signaling accessories.

16. Before he penned Moby Dick, Herman Melville hunted whales in the South Pacific. The logbook below belonged to the William Rotch, of New Bedford, Massachusetts. When the sailors spotted whales, they drew them. Photo couresty of AMNH/D. Finnin. 

17. Whalers used a tool called a mincing knife, or "Blubber slicer," to cut whale fat into thin slices for boiling into oil.

18. Sperm whales yielded the highest quality oil; it burned brightly and had no odor.

19. By the 1950s, whaling had changed dramatically—helicopters were used to spot a whale and to direct chaser ships to its location.

20. Factory ships could process a 110-ton whale in as little as 20 minutes.

21. The only global break in whale hunting was World War II.

22. The blue whale's heart weighs 1410 pounds and is large enough for a child to craw through—something they'll get to do at the exhibit, which has a full-scale model. Photo courtesy of AMNH/D. Finnin.

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March 22, 2013 - 2:00pm
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