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Giants of the deep: a unique blend of science and storytelling helps museumgoers explore the amazing world of whales.


FOR CENTURIES, whales have captured our imaginations and ignited our emotions. We have revered them, made them the subject of myth, hunted them to the brink of extinction, and, passionately protected the,

"Whales: Giants of the Deep explores these fascinating creatures by showcasing fully articulated whale skeletons, hands-on activities, dramatic videos, and the latest findings in whale biology and evolution. The exhibition also highlights how whales have influenced the lives of the indigenous peoples of the South Pacific. On display is a storehouse of treasures carved with whale-like images and filled with stunning adornments and deadly weapons made of whale bone and teeth from places such as New Zealand and Fiji.


The complex relationship between whales and the people of the South Pacific is a theme that runs throughout the exhibition. Through videos and text panels, visitors will meet people whose lives have been inextricably linked with whales, from legendary whale riders to scientists and former whaling families. Make no mistake, though, whales are the stars of the show. Two fully articulated sperm whale skeletons (male and female) measure more than 58 and 38 feet in length, respectively. A model of the heart of a blue whale is so large--The size of a Volkswagen Beetle--children can climb through it. Interesting facts are sprinkled throughout "Whales": a whale's tongue can weigh more than an elephant; gray whales migrate 12,000 miles each year, blue whales are the same size as a 737 jetliner.

Models of ancient extinct animals show how land-dwelling mammals evolved over millions of years to become the whales and dolphins we know today. Sounds of whales can be heard and compared--some of these giants communicate with "songs" and others use echolocation to navigate and hunt.

"Whales" also explores the changing attitudes from the history of whaling to modem ecotourism, examines different species of whales, details how they swim, feed, and mate, and why they sometimes strand themselves on land. Detailed as well am today's conservation efforts and how factors such as pollution and climate change impact whales and their habitats.



"Whales: Giants of the Deep" is on view through Jan. 16, 2012, at The Field Museum, Chicago, Ill.








"Whales: Giants of the Deep" is comprehensive and rich in content. The following walk-through gives detailed information about each section of the exhibition:

Whale People. This section introduces the people of the South Pacific whose lives are inextricably linked to whales. Visitors walk under the bargeboards of a wharenui (traditional Maori meeting house) decorated in whale-like patterns and topped with a carving of a whale rider. Here they learn the legend of Tinirau and the whale, which illustrates the complex relationship Pacific Islanders have with whales--viewing them as friends, guardians, and as a source of food. Maori culture is rich in whale riding legends that tell of ancestral arrivals to New Zealand shores. In the Whale Rider Theater, three of these stories are told.

Status Symbols. Beautiful items made of whale teeth and bone--such as intricately carved pendants, breastplates worn by Fiji chiefs, ceremonial whale teeth given to seal friendships, and rare weapons made from large whale bone--are on display. Only chiefs and others with prestige and authority owned these types of status symbols, which are seen in a re-creation of a Maori storehouse of treasures.

Willing Industry. A lucrative and dangerous world is explored, where factory ships could reduce a 100-ton whale to raw "product" in as little as 20 minutes. Hunting continued into the early 20th century with whale oil in high demand as a commodity used to light city streets and lubricate machines. Other parts of the animal also were valuable, for instance whale baleen (flexible plates that hang from the outer palate of these whales and used in feeding) were used for stiffening corsets and umbrellas. There are photographs from the period alongside whaling tools, including a lance, harpoons, knives, and a cutting spade.

By the 1950s, whaling had become even more deadly, with faster ships and even helicopters employed in the hunt. The exhibition describes how the escalating slaughter caused the conservation movement to gain momentum in the 1970s. New Zealand discontinued whaling in 1964, and whales have been fully protected since 1978. Further measures were put in place when The Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary was established by the International Whaling Commission in 1994.

Whale lab. While the interaction between whales and humans is an important part of the exhibition, so is the anatomy of these marine mammals. A series of full casts of impressive skeletons shows how whales evolved over millions of years--long before humans came on the scene.

Evolution. About 55,000,000 years ago, during a hot period in the Earth's history, a group of hoofed mammals began spending more and more time in the water, living on abundant food there. Eventually they left land altogether--to become whales.

The earliest ancestor was a wolf-sized animal called Pakicetus attocki that lived by rivers in the region that now is Pakistan. Ear bones from Pakicetus show a feature that is unique to whales. Another clue to the relationship between Pakicetus and modem-day animals is found in its ankle bone. Today's pigs, cows, and hippopotamuses have a similar bone; genetic research confirms that hoofed mammals and whales are related.

The next step in whale evolution is shown by an extinct mammal, Ambulocetus natans--literally "walking whale that swims"--which lived on the margins of a vast shallow sea known as the Tethys. Scientists believe that Ambulocetus received sound waves through its lower jaw bone, which then traveled through soft tissues leading to the ear. This foreshadows the remarkable sound-receiving system used by modem toothed whales.

Between 43,000,000 and 46,000,000 years ago, an otter-like animal, Kutchicetus minimus, lived in tropical seas. it had smaller legs than previous whale ancestors and spent more time diving. Kutchicetus probably had a reduced need for hair because, as it spent more time diving, hair would provide less insulation (through the compression of the fur) and blubber probably then began to provide this insulation.

The closest relatives to modem whales lived 34,000,000 to 40,000,000 years ago and are called basilosaurids. By this point in whale evolution, the nostril (blowhole), had moved to the top of the head; ears had evolved that allowed acute underwater hearing; forelimbs had become flippers; and hind limbs were rudimentary. The pelvis had detached from the spinal column, freeing up the lower spine to power greater tail movement, and squared-off vertebrae at the tip of the tail would have supported flukes. Basilosaurids came to inhabit all the oceans of the world.

Finally, about 35,000,000 years ago, we see the arrival of the earliest forms of the modern groups of whales, the baleen whales and the echolocating toothed whales. The baleen evolved to have only plates in their mouths rather than teeth. Made of keratin, just like human fingernails, these plates are called baleen and they act as a filter during feeding. Baleen whales include the largest animal that has ever lived--the blue whale. The modern toothed whales from the great sperm whale to the smallest dolphins and porpoises use echolocation, a remarkable biosonar, to find their way in the oceans and to locate their prey.

Diversity. The world of whales is populated by many different species, each with a unique body type and behaviors. The exhibition introduces the entire "family tree." Modern whales are divided into two main groups--baleen and toothed--and these two groups are broken down into smaller and smaller groups until we come to individual species. We use the name "whales" to refer to the biggest animals, but technically dolphins (beak and conical teeth) and porpoises (no beak and spade-shaped teeth) also are two families of toothed whales. It can get confusing. For instance, killer whales really are the largest type of dolphin. Dolphins are the largest family of whales and are well known to scientists. The next largest family consists of beaked whales, but they are poorly known and rarely seen. Some species of beaked whales are known only from skeletal remains found on beaches. The exhibition features a case with several beaked whale skulls--some of the rarest zoological specimens on Earth.

There are different behaviors in various types of whales. For instance, Baleen whales are batch feeders. Baleen hangs from the upper jaw and each inside edge has a hairy fringe; these fringes knit together to separate food from the water, Gray whales have rather coarse baleen that allows them to filter sediment from the seafloor for the small crustaceans (mainly amphipods) that live there. Toothed whales, on the other hand, either grab prey with their teeth or suck it directly into their mouths. They tend to eat individual animals, such as squid, fish, and, in some cases, other marine mammals.

Anatomy. Sperm whales are the largest toothed predators on the planet and the most widespread of all whale species. The male's skeleton on display is more the 58 feet in length. It was collected in 2003 during a mass stranding of 12 sperm whales on the west coast of Auckland, New Zealand. The female skeleton is about 38 feet in length and was collected in 1992, also in New Zealand. The whales' bodies have several anatomical features similar to ours, but with adaptations that have allowed them to rule the seas for millions of years.

The sperm whale's head is made up mostly of a large rectangular nose--a male's nose can be one-third its body length and a female's can take up one quarter its length. The sperm whale gets its name from the milky-colored waxes and oils found in a reservoir in its head--whalers thought it might be sperm. However, the organ that contains the fluid is involved in the whale's sound generation. The sperm whale's thin lower jaw can open very wide and, although its teeth are impressive, they are not used for eating--the sperm whale sucks prey into its mouth--but for fighting.

One of the most fascinating aspects of whale anatomy and behavior involves how these large creatures navigate and hunt using echolocation. All modern toothed whales produce sounds in the form of clicks and pulses that pass from the head of the animal out into the water and bounce off objects that then reflect this sound (like an echo) back to the whale. These high-frequency sounds allow the whales to hunt prey in the dark depths of the ocean. Baleen whales also produce sounds. However, these are not thought to allow for real echolocation. Humpback whales, though, can form complex songs.

"Whales" also explains how these giants of the deep manage to mate (underwater, belly-to-belly), and how they nurse their young. Whales grow fast on a diet of milk that is up to 46% fat, compared with cow's milk that is no more than five percent fat.

Whale Strandings. The most poignant section of the exhibition examines why whales strand themselves on beaches and how humans react. Whales strand for various reasons--illness and old age can play a part, as can extreme weather and the make up of coastlines. Human-made pollution, and mishaps with ships and fishing gear can result in strandings as well.

How individuals react also varies--some indigenous peoples see whales as gifts from the sea; for others it is a rare opportunity to study these creatures. Many people, of course, want to help save them. A short documentary film examines issues surrounding whale strandings in New Zealand, and presents views from a range of people, including Department of Conservation officers, researchers, and Maori who want to maintain customary practices. "Whales" explains what happens during a rescue and many of the challenges rescuers face--such as the struggle to regulate a whale's temperature out of water and how to protect its skin from sunburn.

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Title Annotation:Ecology; Whales: Giants of the Deep
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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