Hidden Library: How Science Is Virtually Unwrapping the Charred Scrolls of Herculaneum

University of Kentucky/Brent Seales
University of Kentucky/Brent Seales

Brent Seales called them Fat Bastard and Banana Boy. They were two charred, highly fragile relics that had survived the Mount Vesuvius volcanic eruption of 79 CE, which doused residents of Pompeii and neighboring Herculaneum in a searing blast of destructive gas and volcanic matter. Herculaneum was buried under 80 feet of ash that eventually became solid rock.

Entombed for centuries, the city was rediscovered in the mid-1700s. Incredibly, the library of Herculaneum (known as the Villa dei Papiri) was still filled with over 1800 scrolls, solidified into dark husks. The words inside—religious text, scientific observation, poetry—could provide unprecedented insight into human history. Yet unraveling them has proved difficult. The papyri are so damaged and rigid from lack of moisture that they suffer from a kind of archaeological rigor mortis. And unlike the paralysis that seizes the body upon death, this condition is permanent. Delicate attempts to open the scrolls by hand have been destructive. For a long time, it seemed as if the secrets of the texts would remain locked away for good.

But as Seales stared at the two hardened masses in front of him in 2009, he didn’t share that pessimism. A professor of computer science at the University of Kentucky, he believed that the manual unwrapping that had long failed could be replaced by virtual unwrapping—the digital opening of the texts using computer tomography (CT) scanning and software to penetrate inside the rolled-up scrolls, revealing layers once thought invisible to the eye.

“It’s the only library from antiquity that we have,” Seales tells Mental Floss. “All the knowledge that seems lost, your imagination can run wild.”

 
 

Seales first grew curious about the role of digital manipulation in 1995, when he was invited to assist the British Library in London in scanning and preserving Beowulf. Its 1000-year-old pages had been damaged by fire and warped by the passage of time, imperfections that 2D scans left intact. The use of special software and a 3D visualization, Seales realized, could make it possible to actually flatten the pages and restore smeared copy.

The idea of capturing and manipulating visual data came from Seales's experience in medical imaging, where CT scans can peer inside the body in a noninvasive manner. What if, Seales wondered, the same principle could be applied to the study of fragile documents? What if a relic could be examined in the way a radiologist can visualize, say, the lungs? "That was the eureka moment," he says.

A digital CT scan of a damaged scroll that is being reconstructed
A CT scan of a damaged scroll, with layers visible (L). The red outline is digitally reconstructed in a process called "segmentation" (R).

Seales believed he could use these diagnostic tools to virtually rebuild manuscripts, and returned to the British Library in 2000 to examine other warped documents. After taking images using a prototype of a machine that achieved 3D scans without physical contact, he wrote software that smoothed out the buckled and bunched pages. He likens it to a computer mimicking the tug of gravity, or reversing the direction of a billowing flag. The technique worked—he was able to achieve realistic, flat versions of centuries-old damaged pages.

But Seales believed he could set his ambitions higher: to not only virtually repair a damaged page, but peer inside the Herculaneum scrolls without the risk of causing additional harm. Like many scholars before him, the allure of Herculaneum's vast repository of knowledge had captured his curiosity.

However, the idea of subjecting the scrolls to even minimal handling was something few would consider. Only the Institut de France—one of four major holders of the scrolls—would entertain the idea, and it took four long years to convince them of the possibilities. In 2009, they finally granted permission to Seales's team to scan two Herculaneum scrolls they had in their possession. Officially, the scrolls were categorized as P.Herc.Paris 3 and P.Herc.Paris 4. Seales nicknamed them Fat Bastard and Banana Boy.

The easiest way to imagine the first part of his process is to visualize a sheet of dough that is covered with small red letters and then rolled up. Seen from its edges, the wrap displays its layers and colored pieces, though no observer could possibly identify sentences from that perspective. By slicing the roll into cross-sections as small as 14 microns thick (human hairs are around 75 microns) in a process known as volumetric scanning, Seales can then use geometric "mesh" to reassemble them into a readable surface, depicting the paper so it appears to be as flat as the day it was first written on.

In 2009, the technique allowed Seales to peer inside a closed Herculaneum scroll for the first time, revealing a fibrous labyrinth of data that initially looked like coiled string.

“We saw this amazing structure,” Seales says. But that's where things went wrong.

Seales had believed that trace metals commonly found in the ink of the period could be isolated by the imaging, separating them from the page once the scroll was unraveled and rendering the script legible. But so little of the metals were present that it didn't allow him to identify letters. Nor could Seales distinguish the carbon in the papyrus from the carbon in the ink, which rendered them indistinguishable from one another. The software also wasn't prepared to process the terabytes of data from the scan. While he technically had been able to look inside the scrolls, there was no functional way to determine what he was seeing.

Over the next several years, “Seales Stymied” became something of a headline in academic circles. That ignored the larger point: Seales had proven it was possible to retrieve images from inside the Herculaneum scrolls. It was now a matter of how best to visualize and process it.

 
 

The Herculaneum scans pushed Seales and his team to renovate their software, an act made easier by Seales’s sabbatical work as a visiting scientist at Google’s Cultural Institute in 2012 and 2013. “The interns helped me with the algorithms,” he says, which was a major perk of working for one of the world’s most concentrated and talented assembly of programmers.

His software was vastly improved by the time Seales was approached in 2014 by Pnina Shor, the curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at the Israel Antiquities Authority. Shor had heard of Seales’s work and wanted to know if he could take a look at some CT scan data she had gathered from a 3-inch stick of parchment found in En-Gedi, Israel, in 1970. There was probably ink, but it was obscured by the folds and twists of the parchment.

A CT scan of the En-Gedi scroll, along with a virtual example of how it might look unfolded
The En-Gedi scroll's layers are tightly wound (L). Special software is able to isolate one layer to look for text (R).

Seales looked at the scans and applied his process for virtual unwrapping. He used a step he called "texturing," which identifies density differences and other data on the paper that indicate where ink has been applied and assigns a value to that point. Logging the information on individual voxels—the 3D equivalent of pixels—he's able to reassemble them so they appear as a familiar letter shape. The data is then flattened so it resembles an unrolled sheet.

The En-Gedi scroll was made from animal skin, which Seales says is better for contrast against the ink than papyrus, and also benefited from resolution that was twice as good as what he used in 2009. He sent his findings to Shore in 2015; she wrote him back an email humming with excitement. Seales didn’t know what he had uncovered—he doesn’t read Hebrew—but Shor did: It was the first two chapters of the Book of Leviticus, the earliest example of Bible text after the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves.

“When we saw the results we almost fainted,” Shor told reporters. “We had been certain it was just a shot in the dark.”

The fully unwrapped En-Gedi scroll with writing visible
The fully unwrapped En-Gedi scroll revealed writing that had not been seen in centuries.

Shor’s willingness to embrace new technology helped reveal text locked away for centuries. Conservators are notoriously cautious when it comes to handling such delicate relics—even though Seales never touches one personally, since curators are responsible for getting scrolls in and out of CT scanners. Only recently has Seales been able have more productive conversations at the Officina dei Papiri at the National Library of Naples in Italy, where the bulk of the Herculaneum scrolls are kept, and the University of Oxford. (The Institut de France and the British Library also hold Herculaneum scrolls.)

He remains optimistic that the method used for the En-Gedi material will work for the Herculaneum collection. At a conference this past March, he and members of his team presented new findings showing success in determining the column structure of one text (17 characters per line), as well as reading specific letters—and even entire names. Part of the breakthrough comes from high-powered x-ray beams like the one housed at Diamond Light Source in the UK, which are proving potent enough to isolate the trace amounts of lead in the ink.

 
 

The progress can seem glacial, but Seales has nonetheless gone from imaging a wrapped papyrus to isolating a clearly defined letter. Next, he hopes, will come sentences, possibly isolated by artificial intelligence software he's currently writing.

But even with permission, Seales’s pursuit of a viewable Herculaneum fragment is still dependent on funding. “I sometimes cringe when I see people say, ‘Seales has been working on this for two decades, unable to figure out the problem,’” he says. “Funding comes and goes.” Commercial applications for his software and methodology—like bone scanning or even virtual colonoscopy—could one day underwrite the academic work.

With access, cooperation, and a little luck, he remains optimistic we’ll eventually be able to uncover the knowledge long buried by Mount Vesuvius—time capsules that are slowly revealing their secrets, one micron at a time.

All images courtesy of University of Kentucky/Brent Seales.

An Exercise in Poo-Tility: Scientist Tries to Make a Knife Out of Poop

Courtesy of Metin Eren
Courtesy of Metin Eren

Having a career in science often means enjoying the thrill of discovery. Gaining a better understanding of the world around us is among the most noble of professional pursuits. Other times, you may find yourself crafting a knife out of frozen feces.

In an experiment reported by Sapiens, researchers at Kent State University recently tested the validity of an old and possibly apocryphal tale involving an Inuit man whose family wanted him to join them in a new settlement. When he insisted on living a solitary life on the ice, the family took away his tools. The man indignantly used his bowel movement to forge a blade to kill a dog for his rib cage and hide—which he repurposed as a sled—and disappeared into the countryside. Scientists wanted to see if it would really be possible to create a bladed tool out of poop.

The study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, contains a spoiler in its title: “Experimental Replication Shows Knives Manufactured from Frozen Feces Do Not Work.” Lead author Metin Eren, director of archaeology and assistant professor of anthropology at Kent State, fully committed to the task, eating a high-protein diet typical of the Inuit for eight days and preserving his excrement. “Raw material collection did not begin until day four,” he writes, though it’s unclear whether that was due to a need to create distance from the remnants of a contemporary diet or whether he was constipated.

The waste was manipulated into two blades, one shaped by hand and the other by a knife mold, then frozen at -20°C. Immediately prior to use, they were subjected to dry ice at -50°C to ensure firmness. A metal file was used to hone the cutting edge.

A knife made from human feces is pictured pressed against pig hide
An exercise in poo-tility: The knife is unable to penetrate pig hide.
Courtesy of Metin Eren

Armed with this weaponized fecal matter, Eren tried to mimic how the Inuit would have used such a tool, attempting to cut into animal hide with it—in this case, pig hide. Lacking the properties of steel, the waste simply turned to mush when pressed against flesh. This remained the case even when Eren solicited the bowel contents of a colleague eating a more traditional Western diet. (A conversation that was unfortunately not recounted.) Only the most pliable subcutaneous fat of the pig could be penetrated before the knife became blunted.

“…Our results suggest that knives manufactured from frozen human feces are not functional,” Eren writes, adding that “we gave our knives the best possible chance to succeed and they still could not function.”

The value of a poop-based tool appears to be nil, but the story might still have resonance: scholars familiar with the tale believe it could have been a figurative attempt to describe the resourcefulness of the Inuit.

[h/t Sapiens]

How Two Biologists Put A Killer Whale Back Together, Bone by Bone

It might have been the splashing of harbor seals that caught his attention.

Without making a sound, the bullet-shaped killer whale named T44 might have turned and accelerated toward the seals through the clear, cold waters of British Columbia’s Johnstone Strait, gaining speed with each thrust of his powerful tail. He wouldn’t have been alone—several female whales and their calves, also part of northern Vancouver Island’s T pod, swam alongside him, and when they reached the group of plump harbor seals, they struck.

T44's black-and-white head would have shot out of the sea, veered in a half-turn to catch the flipper of the panicked seal in its teeth, and dragged it down below the surface. Using his paddle-shaped flippers like rudders, the orca might have breached again with the seal still in his jaws, arcing clear of the water before falling back.

We don’t know for sure—no one witnessed T44’s final hunt. But we do know that at some point, T44 swallowed the 100-pound seal, claws and all. He had chased down about 15 harbor seals in the week before this catch.

But this one, in March 2009, would be T44's last.

Not long after, fishermen found T44’s body floating in the strait, a narrow channel separating the rocky coasts of northeastern Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. The whale had been born there about 30 years earlier, and had never left the area.

T44's story wasn’t over, though. Its huge body would be salvaged and its bones stripped of flesh and oil. Mike DeRoos and Michi Main, two of the world's top skeleton articulators—people who rebuild an animal's bones into a scientifically accurate skeleton—would reassemble the cleaned bones in their workshop. From an inert puzzle of bone and steel, the couple would resurrect T44 in a true-to-nature pose for a local museum, giving the killer whale a second life.

 

Humans have been fascinated by killer whales’ savage intelligence for centuries. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote that “their Likeness cannot be represented by any other Figure than that of a mighty Lump of Flesh, armed with terrible Teeth.” As the sea’s apex predators, orcas inspired legends among Pacific Northwest whaling peoples like the Makah and Nuu-Chah-Nulth. In the 18th century, naturalist Carl Linnaeus named them Delphinus orca, or “demon dolphin.” Their current scientific name, Orcinus orca, translates to “demon from hell.”

Telegraph Cove British Columbia
Telegraph Cove on Vancouver Island, British Columbia
David Stanley, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Modern scientists are just beginning to study and understand the animals' culture. The northern Pacific Ocean is home to three killer whale ecotypes—populations that are genetically, behaviorally, and geographically distinct from one another. Endangered resident killer whales mainly eat salmon, while little is known about offshore killer whales, which prowl the edge of the continental shelf.

T44 was a transient killer whale, the ecotype that specializes in hunting marine mammals. (In the 1970s, marine biologist Michael Bigg noted they had taller dorsal fins and didn’t interact with the residents, leading him to conclude that they were just passing through—transients, in other words. They're also called "Bigg’s killer whales.") They roam the coastal waters of British Columbia, where the channels and bays of the Inside Passage brim with seals, sea lions, porpoises, dolphins, and baleen whales. Groups of transients are known to take on gray whale calves and minke whales. Humpback whales, twice as long and five times heavier than a fully grown orca, have been seen with rake marks on their flukes and flippers from the transients’ teeth.

T44 killer whale at Telegraph Cove, British Columbia in 2007
T44, identified by his distinctive dorsal fin shape, swims by Telegraph Cove in 2007.
Jared Towers

When hunting, transients rely on stealth. Traveling in small groups of four or five, they passively listen for the splash of a seal, the whoosh of a minke surfacing to exhale, or the call of a mother gray whale to her calf. One transient group may signal other transients with quiet clicks at specific intervals, inviting them to join the hunting party; biologists believe transients share a limited vocabulary to aid communication between unrelated groups. Then, the killers attack with shocking ferocity. They seem to like playing with their prey before tearing it to pieces. “If people see them hunting, there’s often red blood in the water, and it can be kind of gruesome,” DeRoos, the skeleton articulator, tells Mental Floss. A soft-voiced biologist who speaks thoughtfully about cetacean murder, DeRoos has been studying orcas and rebuilding their bones for more than 15 years. “They’re the real killer whale,” he adds.

Born in 1978, T44 was the 44th identified whale in the transient population around the northern end of Vancouver Island. He spent almost all of his life in the waters around Telegraph Cove, a tiny settlement on the island’s east coast. Crowded by dense cedar forest on one side and Johnstone Strait on the other, the former fishing and cannery village is now a seasonal hub for eco-tourism. Between May and October, thousands of visitors come to see the strait’s humpback whales blow prismatic jets of vapor and Steller sea lions pose on the rocks. Most tourists hope to glimpse the orcas as they chase 30-pound Chinooks or punt hapless dolphins into the air.

Killer whale T44 towed to Telegraph Cove harbor in British Columbia
Jim Borrowman and Graeme Ellis tow the body of T44 to Telegraph Cove so biologists can perform a necropsy on the killer whale.
Courtesy of Mary Borrowman

Jim Borrowman, one of about 12 year-round residents of Telegraph Cove, opened the village’s Whale Interpretive Centre in 2002 after co-founding British Columbia’s first whale watching company in 1980. The center exhibits skeletons of cetaceans common to local waters, including a 60-foot fin whale and a gray whale, whose carcasses were found floating near Telegraph Cove.

It was Borrowman who received the phone call on March 31, 2009, about a dead killer whale in Johnstone Strait. The Canadian Coast Guard had identified it as an orca and called Graeme Ellis, a local killer whale researcher and Borrowman's friend. “Graeme called me up and said, ‘We’ve got this dead killer whale. The [Coast Guard] ship tied it up in a bay on the north end of the island,’” Borrowman, a garrulous old salt, tells Mental Floss. “Graeme said he wanted to try and figure out if we could identify it still—once these whales die, they lose their skin quite quickly and all their identifying marks. But he definitely wanted to do a necropsy [to find the cause of death]. These are very rare finds and very important finds.”

“I really wanted a bigger killer whale for the museum; I have a juvenile already,” Borrowman adds. “Graeme said, ‘If you can tow it down, you can have it.’ I said, ‘Hurry and get here!’”

From Telegraph Cove, the two men drove Borrowman’s whale-watching boat to where the Coast Guard ship had secured the orca. Major decomposition had yet to set in, and Ellis recognized it right away. “We knew it was a Bigg’s type. T44 had a big nick on the back edge of the dorsal fin. And there were a few scratches left on the saddle patch area, some marks there, so Graeme could positively identify it,” Borrowman says.

They worked quickly to tie a thick nylon line around the whale’s flukes as gale-force winds whipped up. As they towed T44 behind the boat toward Telegraph Cove, the 7-ton whale snapped the tow line, but Borrowman managed to rehook it. They waited out the storm overnight on shore. A light snow was falling the following morning when they arrived in Telegraph Cove, where 18 scientists were waiting with flensing knives in hand.

 

The first step in preparing T44 for his second life took days. First, the scientists, who came from the island's Pacific Biological Station, "spent all day cutting all the bones completely apart and trimmed as much of the meat off as we could. During this time, [biologist] Steven Rafferty took measurements and collected all the samples he needed,” Borrowman says.

Killer whale skull and vertebrae in skeleton articulation workshop
T44's skull rests on a workbench while the vertebrae are mounted on the steel bar.
Mike DeRoos

T44 appeared to be a healthy, mature 31-year-old male, about 25.5 feet long and roughly 15,000 pounds, with no bruising or obvious signs of a ship strike. (The average lifespan of a male orca is about 30 years, while females live for an average of 50 years, and some much longer.) There were more than 300 seal claws in T44’s stomach, indicating that he ate roughly 15 to 20 harbor seals in his final week, along with two yellow plastic flipper tags from juvenile elephant seals. Researchers were unable, however, to point to a cause of death based on tissue samples. “It could simply be that he lived and died a fairly normal life,” Borrowman says.

When the necropsy was complete, the biologists turned the carcass over to Borrowman. He and a few others continued cutting the skeleton apart for several more days. Now, the months-long process of cleaning and degreasing T44’s skeleton for display in the Whale Interpretive Centre began. Every morsel of rotting muscle and blubber, every cartilaginous tendon and bit of skin, would need to be removed from the exterior of the bones. Every pint of oil, which helps keep live whales buoyant, would have to be drained from their porous tissue.

From his earlier experience denuding the 60-foot, 60-ton fin whale, Borrowman had determined that sea scavengers—fish, crabs, shrimp, and microbes—are the best cleaners for the job. The fish and crustaceans pick off the flesh, while marine bacteria burrow into the bone. In the cold waters of Johnstone Strait, the oil would solidify into a wax for them to devour.

The crew put T44’s skull in netting to hang it from a dock, while the mandibles, including the teeth, went into large apple juice barrels with holes punched in the lids. Pectoral fins—which were so heavy it took four men to lift them—were secured in large fish totes and weighted down. They tied all of the loose ribs together in bundles and strung about three dozen star-shaped vertebrae on lines. Then, they heaved everything into Telegraph Cove harbor.

“The meat goes quickly,” Borrowman says. “The problem is that every species, and every age of every species, has a different amount of oil in it and time period that it takes to get it out. And there’s no book on that.” Any oil that remains in the bones will ooze out, drop by drop, sometimes for decades.

T44’s bones remained underwater for a year. In the spring of 2010, Borrowman brought up the bundles and barrels, encrusted with barnacles and anemones, and pried off the lids. He spread the cleaned bones on Telegraph Cove’s dock so the sun’s heat could liquify most of the remaining oil, which took several months to drain out. Later, he put some of the individual bones on display in the Whale Interpretive Centre for a few years.

Then, he hired Mike DeRoos and Michi Main to put T44 back together.

 

DeRoos and Main, a husband-and-wife skeleton articulating team, operate from their home and workshop on Salt Spring Island, just down the main highway from Telegraph Cove. Both are trained as biologists; DeRoos learned the art of putting skeletons together as one of the first student workers hired at the Whale Interpretive Centre in 2002. “I grew up working with my dad, building things. I’ve always loved working with my hands and figuring out how to put things together. Building skeletons just seemed like the extension of that,” DeRoos says. “If I hadn’t become a biologist, I probably would have gone into engineering.”

Killer whale skull, vertebrae, and ribs mounted on steel supports
T44's skull and ribs are mounted on to the backbone.
Mike DeRoos

In September 2017, Borrowman delivered T44 to the workshop. The bones would need no further degreasing, but that hasn’t been the case with every project DeRoos and Main have worked on. After the marine scavengers and the sun’s rays do their jobs, DeRoos will often bury skeletons in big piles of horse manure for up to six months. The heat of the composting process transforms the oil from a viscous, coconut-oil consistency to a flowing liquid, and microbes in the manure will consume most of it. To get bones completely oil-free, DeRoos will employ an industrial-strength vapor degreaser—a type of machine originally used in aerospace manufacturing facilities to clean out aircraft engines. The degreaser uses solvents to dissolve any remaining oil in the bones in a few hours.

Cleaning the bones of every speck of oil and tissue is essential, because whale guts in any stage of decomposition are not pleasant. “It can have a really rancid, fishy, rotting flesh smell—or, if it’s really fresh, it just has sort of a warm, semi-sweet, bloody fish smell,” DeRoos says. “If you get the tiniest little bit of rotten whale guts on your clothing or on your body, the smell will really follow you. The worst thing, the very worst thing, is when it’s late at night, after you’ve cleaned up from working, it follows you into your house, into places where it shouldn’t be.”

“Some people naturally have a stronger stomach than others,” he adds. “Mine is able to handle a lot of pretty bad stuff.”

By early 2018, the fully degreased, cream-colored pieces of T44 lay in piles around DeRoos’s workshop. The tusk-like ribs spooned on a tarp. The whale’s massive skull was propped on a workbench, seeming to watch DeRoos and Main as they planned T44’s next phase.

Long before the couple begins articulating an animal’s skeleton, they conduct hours of research to learn as much as they can about the species’ natural history. As biologists, they have spent the summer months out on boats in the glacier-hewn channels and straits of British Columbia, monitoring marine mammals and watching how they behave. They’ll consult other scientists and browse their photos of the species from the field. And they'll also watch videos of the animals underwater to understand the nuances of their movement—"to put our own minds into the body of the animal we’re working on," DeRoos says. “Seeing live animals really inspires what I do with the dead ones.”

Mike DeRoos works on the killer whale rib cage
Mike DeRoos works on the killer whale's rib cage.

With a particular set of bones to be articulated, DeRoos and Main will consider the animal’s age, sex, and geographical origin, and look for imperfections that could serve as clues to the animal’s life. “I look at every bone of the skeleton and pick out the abnormalities, like if the animal had a broken rib or a disease in one place that has altered the bones,” he says. “That gives you an intimate, first-hand story about how the animal really lived.”

The details help shape the final narrative of the skeleton, which DeRoos and Main evoke through its posture and the setting where it will eventually be installed. For an earlier killer whale skeleton that is now exhibited at the Noyo Center for Marine Science in Fort Bragg, California, they worked from the contents of its stomach—six harbor seals—to design a posture highlighting “the ferocity, efficiency, and amazing characteristics of this hunter in the ocean,” Main says. “When people come in and experience an exhibit, they have the opportunity to really interact with a killer whale’s jaws, those big teeth. That can really be a good hook to draw people in. We decided [on] this really dynamic rolling, diving hunting posture with its jaws wide open—so when people walk into that exhibit, they walk right into the mouth of this killer whale. You can almost imagine yourself as the prey.”

Skeleton articulator Michi Main and an assistant assemble killer whale flipper bones
Michi Main (left) assembles the flipper bones on the steel support bars. Baby Kaito and assistant Nikoya Catry-Bauer help out.
Mike DeRoos

DeRoos and Main also looked at the space in the Whale Interpretive Centre where T44 would eventually reside. After talking with Borrowman about how he wanted to fit the skeleton into the museum, they decided on positioning the whale in a sharp, banking right turn, diving down as though he were chasing escaping prey. “I started imagining T44 among a group of killer whales, attacking a sea lion, ramming it with their heads, attacking it again, making tight maneuvers around the kill,” DeRoos says. “That’s a dynamic story to tell.”

Back in their workshop, DeRoos and Main faced the challenge of correctly assembling T44 as he was in life. There is no standard manual for orca anatomy, and scientists still aren't sure how many bones an orca is supposed to have. Most killer whales have about 180 bones; within that number are between 53 and 58 vertebrae, 11 to 12 pairs of ribs, and a widely varying number of flipper bones, plus the skull, jaws, and teeth. The bone totals vary among individual whales even within the same species.

That makes articulation based on previous models and skeletons a guessing game. They’ve consulted old Russian whaling texts, which contained the earliest reliable records of killer whale anatomy, for clues. They also examine 3D scans of skeletons they’ve worked on previously, which gives them a framework for conceptualizing the right number and position of bones in their current project.

Replica teeth to be placed in a killer whale skull
The 3D-printed teeth wait to be placed in T44's jaws.
Mike DeRoos

For T44, DeRoos and Main drew scaled-down sketches to make sure their vision for the skeleton was actually something a living whale could do. Using the drawings and DeRoss’s engineering skills, they fashioned the sections of strong but lightweight steel armature that would underlie the entire finished skeleton.

First, they created the steel beams to hold the heaviest pieces—the 110-pound skull and jawbones—in place. Then, they used a hydraulic pipe bender on a huge steel bar that would support the hefty spine and ribs. The big vertebrae were the literal backbone of the entire project; once the steel pipe was bent into the final position evoking a diving orca, the vertebrae were mounted on the support with steel pins. DeRoos and Main had to get these pieces in perfect position before moving on. “The key to all this is having spent time in the field with living whales,” he says. “You have to have a good plan, because you can’t go back once the bones are on.”

From there, the ribs were attached with steel cables onto another steel support, which presents a challenge. “The ribs are finicky," DeRoos says. "If they’re misaligned, it makes the whole thing look bad, because in a living animal they work together seamlessly.” He also mounted the amazing number of flipper bones—imagine the skeletons of two huge human hands, with five to seven joints in each finger—along thin steel rods. Most of the body's supports are hidden behind the larger bones, while flipper mounts blend in between the smaller pieces. He finished off the mess of cables and steel bars with permanent epoxy glues, then removed the temporary supports.

“This elegant mount has no visible external structure, and that really allows people to see what is out in nature. It helps to convey the story in a big way,” Main says.

Killer whale rib cage and vertebrae in the back of a pickup truck
T44's ribs and vertebrae are packed in the pickup for their journey to the Whale Interpretive Centre.

But then, they ran into a problem. Some of the bones were missing—likely lost while they lay in Telegraph Cover harbor, scattered by currents or accidentally cut loose by a passing boat's propeller. “The last 5 feet of tail—about 14 vertebrae—and the entire sternum, plus a couple of sternum ribs, were missing,” DeRoos says. “And we had only about two-thirds of the chevron bones, which fit underneath the tail vertebrae and protect the major blood vessel running back there. There should be about 14 and we had, like, six.”

He turned to 3D printing, comparing T44’s existing bones to those of five other killer whale skeletons in their workshop to find one that most closely matched T44’s dimensions. A slightly older male northern resident killer whale named I46, a salmon-eater from British Columbia, filled in. “We measured [I46] in three or four different ways to come up with a scaling factor for width and height. We scanned I46’s bones and applied the scaling factor to basically blow them up a bit in size to match what was missing from T44, and that’s what we had printed,” he says. “Once we get these bones mounted and painted and on the skeleton, I don’t think anyone would be able to distinguish them as replicas.”

As a finishing touch, T44 got a set of false teeth—not because he had had poor dental hygiene, but because an orca’s solid ivory teeth, each weighing a quarter-pound, can be irresistible souvenirs. “People will walk off with them or try to pull them out of the skeleton,” DeRoos says, sighing. As a solution, he cast each tooth in plastic resin, and a team of volunteers hand-painted the set, which will be bolted to the jaw. “They took each original tooth and matched the paint color, the details, and the stains using artists’ acrylics. They put a matte gloss on the tooth itself and a shiny gloss on the tips,” he says. “They’re virtually indistinguishable from the originals.”

 

Finally, in May 2018, the couple readied T44 for his new life. DeRoos and Main, their three kids, DeRoos’s parents, and several friends drove up to Telegraph Cove in a parade of pickups, the skeleton in five large articulated sections lashed onto trailers. The Whale Interpretive Centre had been prepared for their arrival; the staff had moved the fin whale and smaller orca skeletons out of the way and exhibits had been temporarily pushed to the side. The team planned to assemble the sections on the floor of the hangar-like space—a difficult task when you’re trying to connect several hundred pounds of backbone and ribs to another hundred pounds of backbone by aligning screw-hole to screw-hole. But T44 slid together without a hitch.

Killer whale skeleton mounted in a museum
Now fully assembled, T44 is mounted from the ceiling at the Whale Interpretive Centre.
Mike DeRoos

The team then rigged the completed skeleton with strong ropes, attached to a system of chain hoists, and raised it toward the ceiling, inch by inch. DeRoos checked its position; T44’s big ribcage and string of vertebrae came pretty close to the building’s interior posts. “I wasn’t sure how we’d be able to position his flippers, but we managed to fit everything,” he says. “The really fun part was when we put his lower jaws on. The big, impressive teeth were a hit with everyone.”

Now, T44 hovers overhead like the apex predator he was, menacing an imaginary sea lion in the cold, clear waters of Johnstone Strait. DeRoos pictures him diving down among the kelp, circling his frantic prey, beating it to a pulp exactly as he had when he was alive.

After nine years and thousands of hours of labor, T44 was back home.

Select photography courtesy of Taylor Roades. This story was made possible in part by the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.

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