Thames right whale skeleton unveiled

09 September 2010

A huge whale skeleton found under the River Thames is unveiled for the first time at the Museum of London Docklands, today.

Whale skeleton in the Thames mud uncovered by Pre-Construct Archaeology Limited

Whale skeleton in the Thames mud uncovered by Pre-Construct Archaeology Limited at Bay Wharf, Greenwich © Pre-Construct Archaeology Limited

The headless skeleton of a rare North Atlantic right whale weighs around half a tonne and is 7m long. It will be on show in the museum foyer until 14 September and then moves to its new home at the Natural History Museum.

‘This is probably the largest single ‘object’ ever to have been found on an archaeological dig in London,’ says Francis Grew, Senior Curator Archaeology and Archive Manager at the Museum of London.

‘Whales occasionally swim into the Thames, and there are historical accounts of the enormous public excitement they engendered.

‘To have found a skeleton, which just possibly might be linked with one of those sightings, is quite incredible.’

Unnatural beaching
The whale skeleton shows that its head had been removed

The whale skeleton shows that its head had been removed © Pre-Construct Archaeology Limited

Scientists won't know when this whale died until its skeleton is analysed, but it is thought this was probably around the late 18th or early 19th centuries.

However, they know from the position the whale was found in that it was unlikely to have beached naturally. 

Generally, cetaceans beach head-first, or lie parallel to the shoreline. 

This animal was probably dragged tail-first up onto the foreshore to allow Londoners access to the meat, oil and baleen.

North Atlantic right whale
Rib bones of the North Atlantic right whale uncovered in the River Thames

Natural History Museum assistant curator Tracy Heath with rib bones from the North Atlantic right whale uncovered in the River Thames

The North Atlantic right whale, Eubalaena galacialis, is one of 3 right whale species. 

It is a baleen whale that filter-feeds, slowly skimming the water for prey such as copepods, krill, pteropods, and larval barnacles. Its head makes up a third of its body length.

Adults can grow to 17m long and weigh more than 60 tonnes and they can live to at least 50-70 years.

Endangered species

North Atlantic right whales are endangered and are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It is thought there may be less than 400 individuals left. 

The species was decimated by organised hunting that began a few hundreds of years ago. Whalers regarded them as the 'right whale' because they have huge amounts of oil, are surface-feeders, and float when they are dead making them easy to collect.

Whale excavation
The skeleton of the North Atlantic right whale on display at the Museum of London until 14 Sept 2010

The skeleton of the North Atlantic right whale on display at the Museum of London until 14 Sept 2010

The whale skeleton was excavated by Pre-Construct Archaeology Limited at Bay Wharf in Greenwich 2 months ago. It was spotted poking through the bluish-grey alluvial clay by Stuart Watson. 

Project Manager Tim Bradley explains, ‘When the archaeologist on site phoned me to say that he had found a whale I thought he was joking!

‘As archaeologists we’re used to reacting to unexpected finds, but the size and location of the whale on the tidal foreshore made recovery particularly challenging – among other things it broke the suspension on our van! We’re very excited to have made such exceptional discovery.’

Natural History Museum home
A North Atlantic right whale on display in the Mammals and Whale gallery. This new find could bigger

Part of the North Atlantic right whale on display in the Natural History Museum's Mammals (Blue whale) gallery. The new find from the River Thames could be even bigger than this one already on display.

After the Museum of London display, the whale skeleton will be brought to its new home at the Natural History Museum.

This specimen is huge, and may well be bigger than the North Atlantic right whale skeleton on display in the Natural History Museum’s Whale Hall,' says Museum mammal expert Richard Sabin. 

Sabin was asked to identify the specimen and also found it to be a physically mature individual. 

Sabin also noticed that some of the vertebrae in the tail region had fused together. This may have made the tail more rigid and harder to move, perhaps making the animal more vulnerable to capture or beaching.

Future for the Greenwich whale

The Greenwich whale will be looked after in the Museum’s National Cetacea Research Collection of 2,500 whale, dolphin and porpoise skeletons, which included only 2 North Atlantic right whales. 

These collections are studied by researchers worldwide. Once the Greenwich whale arrives, scientists will begin studying its bones, particularly the DNA and stable isotopes inside, as they can reveal a lot of information about the species. 

Sabin concludes, ‘Although once common in British waters, North Atlantic right whales are now endangered making this discovery particularly fascinating, and offering us a snapshot into the species past distribution, feeding habits and genetic make-up.’

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