The Thames whale: life after death

Northern bottlenose whale skull

In 2006, a northern bottlenose whale swam up the river Thames into London. The story was big news – a rare whale in the heart of the city is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Sadly it was also the end of that particular whale, when it died after an unsuccessful rescue operation.

It’s a story that didn’t have a very happy ending for the whale, and one that pretty soon dropped out of the news. So what happened next?

Normally when a whale dies its body sinks to the bottom of the sea, where it becomes an oasis of food in a pitch-dark desert. This isn’t such a bad way to go – it’s the circle of life, after all. But there is another possibility. A lucky few get a shot at immortality by ending up in a museum.

The Thames whale really was a chance of a lifetime for the Natural History Museum, which claimed the body once the whale had reached the end of its journey. The museum’s ‘whale hall’ is an impressive place, with several real whale skeletons and of course the life-size model of a blue whale.

But only a fraction of the museum’s specimens are on display in the galleries – most stay behind the scenes, where they are part of research projects carried out by the museum’s scientists. This was the fate of the Thames whale.

So how do you go from a dead animal to a specimen that researchers can actually study? First, the body is skinned, dissected and stripped of most of the flesh. Then some of the museum’s smallest staff get to work – a team of flesh-eating beetles. They even have their own webcam!

But clearly a bottlenose whale is a lot larger than your average specimen, so a different approach was needed. Also the beetles are fussy eaters, and whalemeat is too fatty for them (although they did help out on the whale’s skull).

So instead the whale’s bones were put into huge tanks of warm water, mixed with similar enzymes to the ones in biological washing powder, and left to simmer overnight. Then it was a case of ‘rinse and repeat’ until the bones were clean. Washing the bones is a gentle way to strip off the tissue without causing too much damage, and it helps to preserve the DNA inside for future use.

After the bones were removed from the water (not an easy task, with the whale’s head weighing in at half a ton), the museum’s staff started the painstaking process of removing any remaining flesh by hand. This made sure the bones were completely bare.

There was still a chance that parasites might be lurking inside, so the next step was a period of quarantine. The skeleton was put in the freezer for several weeks, to kill off any living organisms left behind after the washing process.

Now the bones were completely clean, out of the freezer and looking great. But whalebone contains oil, which can cause problems in storage, so the final stage was to allow the bones to dry out over several weeks.

That might sound like a lot of effort, but it’s worth it. The skeleton is now part of the museum’s collection and is available for researchers worldwide to use as part of their work. The DNA and isotopes in the bones will tell us about the whale’s diet, and add to the museum’s ever-increasing knowledge of genetic taxonomy.

I think this final resting place is pretty special. Judging by many of the other specimens the museum holds, the whale could be giving up its secrets for decades or even centuries to come, and it might even contribute to the conservation of its descendents one day in the future.

You can watch a video about the Thames whale’s life after death on the Natural History Museum website.

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