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Thames whale reaches final resting place

04 September 2006

The skeleton of the Thames whale has arrived at the Natural History Museum. It will become part of the Museum's reference collection where scientists researching these fascinating creatures will be able to study it.

Abnormal vertebra

Initial studies into the whale’s bones have highlighted interesting conditions in some of the vertebrae.  There is an unusual abnormality in one vertebra in the thoracic region, and the atlas vertebra (the bone that joins the spine to the skull) shows 'pitting' which is unlike the bones of other specimens of this species in our collection.

Richard Sabin, marine mammal expert at the Natural History Museum, emphasizes the importance of further studies. 'It is important to stress that the pitting could be entirely normal and nothing more can be said about either condition until outside experts have had an opportunity to examine the bones.'

Future plans

The skeleton is a scientifically important specimen and will be used to research the life of this magnificent animal and the rest of her species. There are currently no plans to put the bones on public display but it is something the Museum would like to do in the future.

The northern bottlenose whale in the River Thames in January 2006. © Marine Connection

The northern bottlenose whale in the River Thames in January 2006. © Marine Connection

Stranded in the Thames

The northern bottlenose whale, Hyperoodon ampullatus, became stranded in the River Thames in January 2006 and after valiant efforts to carry her to safety, she died on the rescue barge at Gravesend. A post-mortem was carried out at the Zoological Society of London and she was thought to have died from dehydration.

'It is important for us to continue to acquire material to compare with specimens collected previously,' said Richard Sabin.

'We can see if any changes have occurred in the species distribution, diet or population structure over the years.'

'This is a great opportunity to collect a comparatively rare species that stranded almost on our doorstep.'

Bone detectives

Scientists can find out a lot from bones. 'The bones of these animals act as reservoirs of information about their life history' Sabin says. DNA and the stable isotopes in the bones can tell us:

  • where the animal lived in the ocean
  • what it fed on and at what depth
  • what its seasonal movements were
  • its relationships to other animals of the same species from different parts of the ocean
  • how old the animal was when it died.
Vertebral discs from the Thames whale skeleton.

Vertebral discs from the Thames whale skeleton.

To get to all this information, Richard Sabin and his colleagues dissected the whale's carcass. The soft tissue of the body was removed to observe the anatomy of the animal. The team then looked for parasites (worms etc) and took tissue samples for archiving and DNA work. 

It took a whole day to remove the flesh and the rough-cleaned bones were taken to the Museum's off-site storage facility to be frozen. 

Cleaning the bones

Then the skeleton went to a laboratory in Scotland large enough for mammal curator Louise Tomsett, to clean the bones further. The bones went into tanks of water heated to about 60°C with enzymes similar to those found in biological washing powder.

Richard Sabin prepares the whale skeleton for the Museum's scientific research collection.

Richard Sabin prepares the whale skeleton for the Museum's scientific research collection.

This is a non-toxic and environmentally sound cleaning method. Richard Sabin explains, 'The techniques that we use now to clean the bones must be as non-invasive and minimally destructive as possible in order to preserve the information such as DNA locked away within them. This also helps to ensure their long-term stability whilst in storage.' The whole cleaning process took about 10 days. 

National Research Collection

The bones were dried slowly and then placed in the Museum's National Research Collection joining the 2,500 whale, dolphin and porpoise skeletons already there.

Sabin concludes 'It is important that the Natural History Museum continues to make specimens like the Thames whale available to researchers from across the world, now and in the future.'

The Thames whale is not on general display to visitors at the moment but will be available to researchers worldwide.

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