15 Facts About Lava

Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images
Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Every day, the news is filled with images of the lava flows coming from Kilauea volcano in Hawaii. Previously obscure terms like laze (lava and haze), vog (volcanic and smog/fog), and pahoehoe and a'a (types of lava flows) are becoming part of the lexicon. But how much do you really know about hot molten rock? Here are 15 fascinating facts about lava.

1. LAVA IS MAGMA ABOVE GROUND.

Magma describes molten rock when it's below the surface, while lava describes molten rock after it erupts. It might seem like a trivial distinction, but there are differences, especially after the liquid cools down. Both magma and lava produce igneous rocks when they cool, but underground magma tends to cool slowly and produce gigantic mineral crystals in a subset of igneous rock called plutonic. On the surface, lava tends to cool rapidly, creating tiny mineral crystals in a subset called volcanic. This means that the same source material can produce two different rocks depending on where it cooled; for example, granite and rhyolite are considered similar, except granite is plutonic, being formed underground, while rhyolite, created on the surface, is volcanic.

2. THERE ARE DIFFERENT TYPES OF LAVA …

lava from an erupting volcano flows and explodes
Richard Bouhet/AFP/Getty Images

The vast majority of lava out there falls into one of three types: mafic, intermediate, and felsic. They're also called basaltic, andesitic, and rhyolitic lavas, respectively. (There are other types, but they're very rare.) These three lavas are distinguished by their mineral composition, viscosity, and the amount of volcanic gases—like water, carbon dioxide, and sulfur dioxide—dissolved in the liquid.

An estimated 90 percent of lava flows are mafic, consisting of around 50 percent silica (SiO2). This kind of lava has the lowest viscosity and gas content; it's the classic bright-red flow you probably picture when you think of lava. Intermediate lava, around 60 percent silica, has higher gas content and viscosity, causing it to explode. Mount St. Helens was an intermediate eruption. Even more explosive—but rare—are felsic lavas, which are 70 percent silica and have the highest gas content and highest viscosity, often exploding and producing bits of rock called tephra.

3. … AND DIFFERENT TYPES OF LAVA FLOWS.

Specifically, there are different kinds of mafic lava flow. The major types on the surface are a’a and pahoehoe, two terms that come from Hawaiian. A’a flows rapidly and loses heat, which increases the viscosity and creates a distinctive rough surface on the cooled lava flow as pieces start breaking off; the word may be from the Hawaiian for burn or stony. In contrast, pahoehoe is smooth and is frequently described as looking like a twisted rope because it moves more slowly and has a lower viscosity, so any breaks are quickly healed. The word may ultimately derive from the Hawaiian for paddle, to describe the smooth ripples paddles create in water. When an eruption occurs under the ocean, a third type called pillow appears. Aside from being underwater, pillow flows are frequently difficult to distinguish from pahoehoe.

4. THE SHAPE OF A VOLCANO IS INFLUENCED BY THE KIND OF LAVA INSIDE IT.

The more liquid mafic lava forms broad, gently sloped shield volcanoes, such as the main volcanoes on the Hawaiian islands. But that's not the only type of volcano this kind of lava can produce: Silica-rich mafic rocks can spray out in the air dramatically, landing back in the area they erupted from to create either a spatter cone, when the lava lands and remains liquid, welding the lava together, or a cinder cone, when the lava solidifies in the air and lands as rock. And if the lava comes from large cracks, it may form flood basalts (as mafic lava is also called).

The more viscous intermediate and felsic lavas produce stratovolcanoes (also known as composite), which are the classic volcano of popular imagination, like Mount Fuji, that build up steeper slopes.

Even more felsic lava leads to calderas, which are areas that erupted so violently the volcano collapsed into the now-emptied magma chamber, creating a large depression in the ground. (You may have even visited one: Yellowstone National Park, which sits above a dormant supervolcano, has a large caldera.) Very felsic lavas can also produce lava domes, which are formed when lava that has been degassed before an eruption piles up around the vent; according to the University of Oregon, the domes can occur in the craters or on the sides of stratovolcanoes and calderas—and sometimes even away from volcanoes altogether.

5. HUMANS HAVE BEEN FASCINATED BY LAVA FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS …

The earliest depiction of a volcanic eruption was thought to be 8500 years old, located on a mural in the Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük, in what is now Turkey. (Some say it's not an eruption at all, but a leopard skin.) But there may be documentation of an eruption that's many thousands of years older. The cave paintings at Chauvet-Pont d'Arc, located 22 miles from France's Bas-Vivarais volcanic field, date to about 37,000 years ago. Alongside the standard cave-painting animals, there are also unusual markings that look like sprays, which led some French researchers to speculate that these are likely depictions of a previously unknown volcanic eruption.

6. … AND HAVE TRIED TO STOP IT FOR CENTURIES.

lava flows through metal fence
USGS via Getty Images

The earliest known attempt to stop the flow of lava was in 1669, when Mount Etna erupted on the island of Sicily. Diego Pappalardo of Catania led a group of men to open a hole in the hardened side of the lava flow; the idea was that the lava would flow out the side hole, away from their town. This was at first a success—at least for the residents of Catania. But was a potential disaster for the people of Paterno, who realized the rerouted flow was now threatening their town. They chased Diego and his men away. The hole they'd made in the hardened lava soon clogged, and the lava resumed its original path towards Catania, where it met the city wall. The wall apparently lasted several days before it failed, and lava entered the city. Sicilians had better luck in 1983 and 1992, when their attempts to divert lava flow from Mt. Etna using earthen banks and concrete blocks were moderately successful. Iceland, too, managed to contain some damage from a 1973 eruption by spraying lava with seawater.

7. WE TRIED TO BOMB LAVA INTO SUBMISSION.

In 1935, the U.S. Army bombed a lava channel on Hawaii's Mauna Loa to divert the flow heading towards Hilo. It didn't work. They tried again in 1942 during another eruption of Mauna Loa—and it still didn't work. However, a few days after the 1942 bombing, there was a natural collapse on the volcano that brought the lava flow to a halt. In theory, bombing a channel can make the lava slow down and do less damage to cities because lava moves fastest when contained in a channel or a lava tube, while lava that flows in a broad fan is much slower and cools faster.

This knowledge inspired yet more experimentation three decades later, in 1975 and 1976, when the Air Force dropped aerial ordnance on ancient lava fields on Mauna Loa to see what would happen. They found that spatter cones were particularly vulnerable to bombing. In a report, the Air Force concluded, "Modern aerial bombing has a substantial probability of success for diversion of lava from most expected types of eruptions on Mauna Loa's Northeast Rift Zone, if Hilo is threatened and if Air Force assistance is requested." Despite this assertion, the technique has never been attempted again.

8. THE CAUSE OF HAWAII'S VOLCANISM IS MYSTERIOUS.

In general, volcanoes form near the edges of plates and are side effects of plate tectonics, but Hawaii is thousands of miles from a plate boundary. To explain this and similar anomalies, geologists proposed the "hot spot" hypothesis. The idea is that a plume of extremely hot material comes from the core-mantle boundary and shoots up, punching a hole in the crust and creating islands like Hawaii. Later refinements to this theory proposed that the plume is more or less stationary, and as the crust moves over the plume it creates features like the Hawaiian island chain.

But as Earth magazine explains, this has proven easy to propose and nearly impossible to verify. Critics complain that as contradicting data has emerged, the hot spot hypothesis has become so flexible that it has stopped actually being useful. Instead, a new hypothesis ties these mid-plate features to plate tectonics. In the case of Hawaii, because the Pacific plate is subducting, or going beneath, other tectonic plates in both Asia and parts of North America, it's starting to crack—and thanks to local mantle conditions the Hawaiian volcanoes are forming. Even as the eruption is nightly news, the cause of volcanism in Hawaii is undergoing renewed debate.

9. IT'S PRETTY EASY TO OUTRUN A LAVA FLOW …

people on road in hawaii taking photos of lava from kilauea volcano
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Last year, researchers from the University of Bristol looked at volcano fatalities between the years 1500 and 2017. Of more than 214,000 deaths they recorded, only 659 could be attributed to lava flows, because, they wrote, "lavas normally advance slowly, allowing escape.” The USGS says a typical mafic lava on a gentle slope flows at less than 1 mph; steep slopes and lava tubes increase that speed.

According to the Bristol researchers, what you really need to watch out for are explosions. "Sudden outbursts of very fluid lavas can cause loss of life," they wrote. "Deaths and injuries typically arise if escape routes are cut off, or as small explosions occur through interaction with water, vegetation or fuel."

Most fatalities could be attributed to "pyroclastic density currents"—basically hot gas, rocks, and ash moving at high speed—which were responsible for 60,000 deaths, or volcano-related tsunamis, which killed about the same number of people. Another nearly 50,000 people were killed by lahars, or volcanic mudflows of water and debris. The remaining deaths were caused by a mix of secondary lahars (which occur years after an eruption), tephra, avalanches, landslides, gas, flying killer rocks called ballistics, and—in nine cases—lightning.

10. … BUT THEY CAN STILL BE DEADLY.

The single largest loss of life from lava occurred in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2002 when an estimated 100 to 130 people were killed by lava when the Nyiragongo volcano erupted. Situated near the city of Goma, the eruption displaced 250,000 people (another 150,000 are thought to have stayed) as lava flowed through the city streets and cut off parts of the town, including covering an estimated 80 percent of the airstrip at the local airport. Beyond its proximity to a major city, Nyiragongo is deadly because it's believed to have some of—if not the—fastest lava on Earth. A 1977 eruption of Nyiragongo created lava—an extremely low-viscosity mafic type—that traveled at an estimated 40 mph. The 2002 flow is thought to have been slightly slower.

11. BLUE LAVA ISN'T REAL …

Frequently making the rounds on social media are images of "blue lava" from the Indonesian volcano Kawah Ijen. Sadly, the amazing blue glow isn't actual lava. Instead it's caused by sulfuric gases that emerge at high temperatures and ignite, which then can flow down as a glowing liquid sulfur. Blue flames caused by ignited methane gas from burned plant matter are appearing in Hawaii as well.

12. … BUT BLACK LAVA IS.

The coolest (by temperature) lava in the world is at Ol Doinyo Lengai in Tanzania. Lava generally ranges from 1300°F–2300°F (700°C –1250°C), depending on its composition. But the lava at Ol Doinyo Lengai is only around 1000°F. It's also the world's only known active carbonatite volcano (a carbonatite is an igneous rock that's mostly carbonate minerals), which means instead of flowing red, the lava flows black and then solidifies white. The ultimate origin of the weird lava at Ol Doinyo Lengai is still a matter of debate, but because it's responsible for much of the world's rare-earth element production, it's increasingly being studied for economic reasons.

13. THERE'S A RESTAURANT THAT USES LAVA TO COOK FOOD.

If you find yourself wanting a unique experience on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, there's a restaurant called El Diablo. What makes it unique is that the grill is placed on top of a 6-foot deep hole with lava at the bottom (although it's considered safe as the last eruption was in 1824). Dining here might be a better choice than trying to roast marshmallows over a volcanic vent, which the USGS strongly advised people not do, noting that even if it weren't dangerous to be near a vent, the sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide likely being emitted would make your marshmallow taste awful.

14. MARS MAY HAVE LAVA CHANNELS.

Whether the deep channels on the surface of Mars were caused by lava or water is hotly debated by researchers. It may seem like it would be easy to tell the difference, but in 2010, researchers analyzed a lava flow from 1859 in Hawaii and found features that looked very similar to channels on Mars that were thought to be carved by water. They concluded that fast and low-viscosity lavas could create many of these features that we thought were water-made. A 2017 study came to a similar conclusion on a different part of Mars, saying that what's traditionally seen as signs of rivers and lakes in one region "can be better explained by fluid lava flooding the channels and filling pre-existing impact craters."

15. CLEANING UP LAVA CAN TAKE MONTHS OR YEARS—IF IT HAPPENS AT ALL.

lava cools as it flows across a field in Hawaii
USGS via Getty Images

Returning a landscape to normalcy up after a volcano can be difficult. If a lot of ash has built up, proper care must be taken to dispose of the ash at a dedicated site all while avoiding inhaling glass, fine silica dust, and toxic gases into the lungs, which could lead to serious illness. Lava is even more difficult. According to Accuweather, contractors rarely fully remove the hardened lava, which can take months or years to completely cool. Even then, removing the lava—which is now rock—requires specialized tools. "In the Hawaii case, we are talking about lava that is incredibly sticky and viscous, and that is nearly 2000°F," University at Buffalo volcanologist Greg Valentine told Digital Trends. "No house can stand up to that, and even if it could, it would be partly or completely buried when everything is over." For these reasons, most people just start anew.

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.

The Reason Newborn Babies Don't Produce Tears

leungchopan/iStock via Getty Images
leungchopan/iStock via Getty Images

As anyone who has spent time with a newborn knows, babies are swaddled and be-diapered packages consisting of mucus, spittle, hiccups, and poop. With their ability to discharge seemingly any kind of liquid, it’s curious that they don’t actually produce tears when they cry.

According to Live Science, newborns can fuss and wail without making tears. To understand why, it helps to know why we make tears in the first place. Watery eye discharge appears when sadness, happiness, or other strong emotions provoke a fight-or-flight response, prompting our eyes to well up to better protect them from perceived harm. Tears also help us alleviate stress.

Infants' tear ducts are not fully operational at birth, however. They can cry and their eyes will get moist, but not enough tears are produced to result in noticeable dribbling. It’s not until three to four weeks after birth that babies are able to have full-fledged bawling sessions. In some babies, it can take up to two months.

You won’t be able to squeeze much sweat out of newborns, either. Eccrine glands that produce sweat on the body don’t gear up until shortly after birth, and for a period of time babies will produce sweat only on their foreheads.

Of course, babies can’t walk, talk, or digest solid foods, either. Getting them up to speed on human functions takes time. The only thing that seems fully operational from day one are their vocal cords.

[h/t Live Science]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER