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National Museum of Natural History acquires complete skeleton of a North Atlantic right whale

The National Museum of Natural History recently acquired its first complete skeleton of a North Atlantic right whale. Accession of the 45-foot adult whale specimen was made possible thanks to an international collaboration of museum scientists, the U.S. Coast Guard, researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, members of the Northeast Regional Stranding Network and volunteers from across the country. These parties worked together to identify, preserve and transport the skeleton from Massachusetts to the Museum Support Center in Suitland, Md.

Genetic testing of the whale’s tissues revealed that the specimen is a male named Tips, whose life in the open ocean was tracked by researchers within the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium from 1980 until 2010, when his remains were found entangled in a fishing net. Scientists plan to study Tips’ skeleton in the context of his documented life history, and they hope to improve their understanding of right whale populations and ocean sustainability.

North Atlantic right whales are among the most endangered whales in the world. They were brought to near extinction by whalers from the 17th-to-19th centuries, who considered them the “right” whales to hunt for their relatively slow speed, coastal habitat and tendency to float long after being killed. Tips lived to be at least 30 years old and belonged to the remaining population of North Atlantic right whales in existence today, consisting of approximately 500 individuals. Scientists track many of these whales and record sightings in the New England Aquarium’s North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog. Tips was named by researchers who noticed white scarring on the ends of his flukes, and he was known for his unusual tendency to swim circles around boats while blowing bubbles.

In June 2010, members of the U.S. Coast Guard contacted staff from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Mammal Stranding program to inform them of a deceased right whale off of the coast of New Jersey. The Coast Guard Cutter “Finback” later towed the whale to Delaware where a team of researchers led by Michael Moore, a biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, performed a necropsy to determine the whale’s cause of death. A DNA analysis of tissue samples by Trent University, as well as a photographic analysis conducted by the New England Aquarium, subsequently confirmed Tips’ identity. Tom French, at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, prepared the whale’s skeleton so that it would be ready for study and preservation in the Smithsonian’s collections for years to come.