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12-foot sperm whale skull arrives at Museum

05 August 2007

A 12-foot sperm whale skull has been donated to the Natural History Museum.

The spectacular specimen is the first donation of a complete skull of this species for 70 years, and will be an extremely important addition to the Museum's mammal research collection.

Enhancing the research collection

The skull is from a sperm whale that died in Arctic waters off the Norwegian coast in the 1930s, and represents the most northerly specimen of this species in the Museum's collection.

Richard Sabin, whale expert at the Museum, says, 'It is important to not only have good geographical and species representation in a research collection, but also a time series, so changes in biology and ecology can be can be studied.'

'This donation is quite fantastic' says Richard. 'The specimen is in very good condition. The logistics of trying to acquire such a specimen are huge, so I'm incredibly grateful to the donors.  This specimen will really enhance the scientific value of our sperm whale collection.'

Scientific research

The whale skull will be looked after behind the scenes and will be used for scientific research to help understand more about the species.

'The bones of these animals act as reservoirs of information about their life history,' says Richard. 'DNA and the stable isotopes in the bones can tell us things such as where the animal lived, what it fed on, how old the animal is and its relationships to other animals of the same species from different parts of the ocean.'

'Scientists can look at the differences that may exist between and within species, which may highlight whether a population is unique. Using this information, biologists and conservationists can put strategies into place to help protect these animals.'

Delicate delivery

Weighing nearly a ton, the task of taking delivery of the skull wasn't easy. Richard and his colleagues spent three days getting the specimen into position so that it could be prepared for addition to the research collection.

The bones were cleaned to remove any intrusive organic material and then sprayed for pest control, to ensure that any insects living in the skull were destroyed.

Maintaining a stable temperature between 14-16°C and a relative humidity of around 50 per cent, will ensure that the skull can be preserved for centuries to come.

Large and social whales

Sperm whales, Physeter catodon , are the largest of the toothed whales and the males can grow up to 18 metres in length. They feed in deep water on squid and dive to depths of between 400-600 metres, with some dives reported as deep as 2,000 metres.

They are the most social of the large whales and form groups lead by adult females. Once young males are sexually mature, they leave the group and form bachelor groups.

Sperm whales live all over the world in tropical, temperate and sub-polar seas. There have been many sightings in British and Irish waters, usually between July and December.