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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Cabinet of Curiosities

Frozen in Time

A catch of a different sort today as we go back to more chilly climes with a selection of mammal remains retrieved from the bed of the North Sea. At various periods during the Ice Age, sea level fell by up to 360 feet with massive quantities of water frozen as ice. As a consequence of this, the North Sea was an extensive area of dry land and home to a host of now extinct mammals including woolly mammoth, cave hyaena, bison, Irish Giant Deer, reindeer and aurochs. As modern trawlers drag the seabed, their nets pick up fossil remains of these same animals which are then brought to the surface when the haul is landed. Mostly somewhere between 110,000 to 12,000 years in age, they offer a fascinating insight into prehistoric Europe. The specimens illustrated here were recovered from the bed of the North Sea.

Mammoth humerus

To most people the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) is the quintessential animal of the Ice Age. Standing up to 11 feet high at the shoulder, an adult weighed around 8 tons. It possessed some special adaptations to deal with the arctic conditions. Its coat consisted of outer coarse hairs, which could be up to 3 feet long, and an under-layer of short dense hairs comparable to a woolly blanket. In addition, a 3-4 inch subcutaneous layer of fat helped to insulate the animal. Life expectancy was around 60 years. The fragment of the end section of a mammoth’s humerus will give you an impression of the size of the animal.

Ancient carnivore teeth marks

Taphonomy is the specialist study within osteoarchaeology or bone analysis which endeavours to ascertain what happened to the carcass of an animal following death. A dead mammoth would have quickly gained the attention of predators. If you look closely at the surface of the humerus, particularly towards the top, from the mid-section across to the right-hand side, you will notice short channel-like marks gouged into the surface. These were inflicted by a large carnivore, possibly a cave hyaena, scavenging the carcass of the dead mammoth tens of thousands of years ago and are in effect a ‘frozen’ moment, no pun intended, in a long since vanished world.

The first vertebra in the spine of a mammal is called the atlas. The specimen here is from a mammoth. The opening in the centre is the conduit for the spinal cord.

Mammoth atlas
Aurochs metacarpal (foot bone)

In December 1994 one of the most remarkable archaeological discoveries in Europe was made in a limestone cave in the Ardéche of south-east France. Described later as a ‘Noah’s Ark’ of Ice Age animals, the 3 speleologists had found a series of caverns adorned with a remarkable collection of over 3oo paintings. By the flickering light of torches, prehistoric artists around 30,000 years ago had adorned the walls of the deep recesses of the cave with images of the animals they knew and hunted. These included the aurochs (Bos primigenius), the wild species of cattle in prehistoric Europe. Standing 6 feet high at the shoulder, with 3 feet long forward pointing horns and weighing over a ton, it was a formidable creature.The metacarpal is from the lower front leg of an aurochs and  give you a sense of the sheer size of this bovine.

Irish Giant Deer thoracic vertebra

A visit to the Ice Age would not be complete without mention of an animal very much associated with Ireland, namely the Irish Giant Deer (Megaloceras giganteus). A magnificent animal, males stood 6 feet at the shoulder and weighed up to 110 stone. The antlers can measure 12 feet along the curvature and these were shed each year. In Ireland they roamed grasslands in the immediate post-Glacial landscape but a temporary return to severe arctic conditions around 10,500 years ago witnessed the extinction of this remarkable animal. The thoracic or chest vertebra has an additional unusual feature. If you look closely at the base of the spinous process, the long upright piece, you will notice that an oyster took up residence in the vertebral foramen, the opening down through which the spinal cord once passed.