Cabinet of Curiosities

A Whale of a Time

Bottlenose before !

Some big stuff today! A total of 24 different species of cetacean (whales, dolphins & porpoises) have been recorded in Irish water. Many of you would be familiar with ‘Fungi’, who has resided in Dingle Bay since 1983, and ‘Flipper’ from the 1960’s TV series, both of which are bottlenose dolphins. They are superb swimmers moving through the water at impressive speed and feed on cephalopods, fish and crustaceans. Some years ago, I came across the remains of a bottlenose on a beach in Achill Island and immediately recognised this as an act of providential intervention, guiding me in my quest to compile a comparative collection of skeletons to facilitate my work as an osteoarchaeologist. Photographs to record the retrieval of the specimen were duly taken. On my return home the skeleton needed to be prepared. However, as I resided at the time in a very small bedsit and lacking a proper laboratory, the only option available to me was to boil the vertebrae, a few at a time, in my stew pot on a two-ring cooker for the initial stage of cleaning. Phase one successively completed some hours later, a large plastic bucket was procured for the project from a local Chinese takeaway, into which I then placed the vertebrae which I covered with water before finally securing the tightly fitting lid. Due to lack of space, the only spot available to stash the bucket was my shower tray. It shared my daily ablutions for a year before the microbes had completed their useful task and I liberated the perfectly whitened bones. The reassembled skeleton now takes pride of place on the floor of my bedroom, where it has a commanding view of the back garden.

Bottlenose after !
Baleen plates from sei whale

Whales are divided into two main groups characterised by their different methods of feeding, namely baleen and toothed. Baleen is made of keratin, the same protein-based material found in your hair and nails and in the form of thin plates hang down from the upper gums of the whale. They are arranged in a tightly packed row. The feeding whale takes a huge gulp of water and as this is expelled from the mouth the inner frayed edges of the baleen plates act like a sieve trapping crustaceans and other small sea creatures on which the animal feeds. The keratin is the material formerly known as ‘whalebone’ and this had a multiplicity of uses including the strengthening ribs in corsets once worn by waist conscious ladies.

While strolling along a beach in Clare some years ago I happened across a mandible or lower jaw of a baleen whale. Unfortunately, it is not complete, the mandibular hinge by which it was once affixed to the skull is missing. It is probably from a minke whale.

Whale and Scale
Sperm whale candle box, early 1900’s

The sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) was brought to the silver screen in the guise of the formidable ‘Moby Dick’ in the 1956 movie bearing that name. Depending on age and gender, they can weigh between 20-50 tonnes and vary in size from 30-65 feet. It gets its name from a fatty substance called spermaceti which is found in a large cavity in the head and is thought to be used as part of a buoyancy control mechanism. Once processed, the resultant wax-like substance was used in the manufacture of candles, soaps and cosmetics.

Sperm whale tooth

The sperm whale has up to 50 conical teeth, a good example of which I found in a box of household junk at an auction some years ago. These are used in catching and consuming prey, including large squid. They regularly dive to depths of 2,000 feet hunting for food. The creamy section is the part which protruded above the gum line while the darker portion is the actual root of the tooth. Sailors on long voyages commonly whiled away the long hours at sea by engraving images on these teeth. This art form is known as scrimshaw, examples of which are highly sought after and command high prices.

My last curiosity today is a collection of bones from a large species of whale, perhaps a sperm or humpback, which I chanced upon on a remote beach in Mayo. The two larger ones are lumbar vertebrae from the lower back and the three smaller ones balancing on top of each other are from the caudal or tail section.

Whale vertebrae

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