RALEIGH — Even in pieces with her bones spread all over the floor, Stumpy makes an impression. This past week found the late, great right whale back in her natural posthumous habitat, her skeleton being assembled in the N.C. Museum of Natural Science's new Nature Research Center.
"Here's the skull," mammals curator Lisa Gatens said, giving the whale's automobile-sized head bone a fond pat. "There really is just something about her. There have been so many people attached to her over the years. Scientists are not supposed to become emotionally attached, but what happened to her still breaks me up. Stumpy was an enormous individual, very robust."
Nearby, Dan DenDanto was working on Stumpy's backbone. Stumpy is the 13th whale skeleton that DenDanto's Maine-based company Whales and Nails has restored. At 52 feet and more than 6,000 pounds, she's one of the largest whales he's worked on.
With DenDanto giving instructions, workers pulled chains to carefully raise sections of the whale's spine, seeking to line up the metal poles used to hold it in place. As they came into alignment, the two sections slid into place.
If the Daily Planet globe is the Nature Research Center's most iconic feature from outside, Stumpy will be the main attraction inside once the museum's $56 million expansion opens to the public on April 20. The new wing has been in the works for more than a decade, and its 80,000 square feet will have everything from dinosaur displays to labs doing biodiversity research. Still, there will be no missing the school-bus-sized whale skeleton on the main floor.
The museum already has a right whale in the old building, but that one is 10 feet smaller and high up on the ceiling. Stumpy will be close enough to touch.
Studied for years
Whales are known as "charismatic megafauna," a label that definitely applied to Stumpy (so named because of an injury that left her missing part of her tail). In life, she weighed 77 tons and had a larger-than-life personality to match.
First spotted and identified in 1975, Stumpy was the subject of study for nearly 30 years and became much beloved in the scientific community. Bill McClellan of UNC Wilmington called Stumpy "the mother of right whales."
That wasn't entirely hyperbole, as Stumpy gave birth to five calves during the years she was tracked. Since there are only around 400 right whales left, every one capable of reproducing is precious.
Stumpy was pregnant with a sixth calf in February 2004 when she was found dead near Nags Head. Her skull was fractured, probably the result of a collision with a cargo ship.
"When a giant cargo ship collides with a whale, it's like a semi truck hitting a poodle," Gatens said. "They might not even know."
By the time Gatens arrived at the site, Stumpy had been cut into sections and was being loaded onto a trailer. The carcass was transported to Raleigh and buried in horse manure, letting anaerobic decomposition strip the flesh from the bones.
After that, the bones wound up in the basement of the science museum as part of its permanent collection (each bone is labeled with the catalog number, NCSM 14121). Until this past spring, when they were transported to DenDanto's Maine workshop to prepare for reassembly and installation, they've been stacked on shelves.
She caused a change
But as the exhibit will demonstrate, Stumpy did not die in vain. Researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts borrowed her 14-foot jawbone and put it through a series of tests to determine the amount of force needed to break whale bones.
The research determined that if cargo ships dropped their speed to 10 knots in certain areas, it would save the slow-moving right whales' lives. Stumpy was one of three female right whales to die from ship strikes over the span of a year. After a lower speed limit was established, whale deaths from ship strikes dropped to almost zero.
All this will be part of Stumpy's exhibit, along with the skeleton of her unborn fetus - a male that would have been born not long after the fatal ship strike.
"I almost want to position myself right by this exhibit and make visitors stop," Gatens said. " 'No, stop, you have to read this! It's a big deal!' It was very upsetting when Stumpy died. Every whale has a story, we just don't know them all. Stumpy is one of the few we do."
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