Skeleton of extinct whale ends decades-long journey from a garage to the Smithsonian

The bones of an extinct North Atlantic gray whale went from being collected on a beach and stored in a garage to calling the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History their new home.

According to a press release issued by the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), Rita and Tom McCabe collected shells and fossils while walking on the beach. One of their finds was a variety of bones, which they kept in their garage for several years.

UNCW Media Relations Specialist Krissy Vick told Newsweek that the couple found the bones in the late 1970s.

Ready to scale down their collection in the 1980s, the couple offered to donate their findings to the college’s Department of Biology and Marine Biology.

“At first, we thought they were bones from a humpback whale, but as I looked closer and as the UNCW Marine Mammal Stranding Program grew under the leadership of Dr. Ann Pabst and Mr. William McLellan, we discovered what a rare specimen we had,” said Dr. David Webster, a senior associate dean for the College of Arts and Sciences who has taught biology and marine biology.

The bones of an extinct North Atlantic gray whale went from being collected on a beach and stored in a garage to calling the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History their new home. Above, Dr. David Webster examines part of the whale’s skeleton.
Photo Courtesy of University of North Carolina Wilmington

Webster told Newsweek some bones were broken and others remained intact. He said that as a repository for scientific collections, the university does not do much reconstruction as a museum would.

Dr. Nicholas Pyenson, a fossil marine mammal curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, saw the skeleton and confirmed that the bones came from the North Atlantic gray whale.

The skeleton, Webster said, is the most complete skeleton of a North Atlantic gray whale in the world with 57 elements.

For nearly 40 years, the skeleton remained in the university’s collection. Vick told Newsweek that collections are typically used for research purposes, though some local groups have an opportunity to examine them.

However, Webster knew the specimen was valuable and should be on display at a top-tier institution. He said the curators with the Smithsonian are among the best in the world and the organization’s collection is premier in the United States.

Negotiations took place over the course of about a month before the collection was transferred to the museum.

Each individual bone was wrapped individually to ensure every part of the skeleton would be protected, and Webster said it took four people to load the cranium into the truck.

A piece published by the Smithsonian Institute noted that experts will have the chance to learn more from the skeleton.

According to the release, gray whales are a species of baleen whale, which were found in the Northern Hemisphere. It is unknown why and when they disappeared from the Atlantic Ocean, but there are a few factors that could have played a role.

“Ultimately, gray whales had largely disappeared from the Atlantic by the early 1700s, and the last recording sighting of one took place around 1740,” the piece stated. “Nowadays, their population is mostly restricted to the North Pacific Ocean.”

Webster said the skeleton was one of the highlights of his career, pointing out that it can provide a snapshot of the whale while it was still alive. It is unknown if the North Atlantic gray whale is the same species as the North Pacific gray whale, but this skeleton opened a door for experts to discover more about it.

“The story has just begun, in essence, and we hope to learn more about this species,” Webster told Newsweek.

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