SciTech

New whale exhibit makes waves

Pictured above is the skeleton of a toothed whale, a subgroup of whales that includes dolphins. The exhibit, Whales | Tohorā, opened at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History on Saturday and features information about the dynamic lives of whales. Pictured above is the skeleton of a toothed whale, a subgroup of whales that includes dolphins. The exhibit, Whales | Tohorā, opened at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History on Saturday and features information about the dynamic lives of whales.

“Oh, don’t worry. Whales don’t eat clownfish. They eat krill. Oh look, krill!”

As Dory taught all of us in Finding Nemo, some whales — some of the largest animals ever to have lived on this planet — eat near-microscopic animals known as krill. The blue whale, at up to 100 feet long and 200 tons, lives on a diet of millions of creatures only a few centimeters in length. “Whales remain the most mysterious of our distant cousins,” said John Wible, curator of the mammals section at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

On Saturday, the museum opened Whales | Tohorā, an exhibit created by Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s national museum, available to the Carnegie Museum through the support of the New Zealand government. In addition to a breadth of information on whales, the exhibit also features artifacts and information from the Māori — pronounced “mow-ree” — of New Zealand, a tribe whose lives in many ways incorporate whales — or tohorā, in the Māori language. Most of the text for the museum’s labels was in fact written by the Māori.

One way the museum alludes to the original home of the exhibit is that many of the multimedia presentations — including a cartoon titled “Tinarau and the Whale” depicting a folk tale of the Māori in which a proud and selfish man is punished for exploiting a cherished whale — offer the option of listening to the voice-over in Māori in addition to English. Like Finding Nemo, the Whales exhibit offers treats for both children and adults interested in whales. A life-size replica of a blue whale’s heart invites anyone of a smaller stature to climb through and listen to it beat. There is even information inside inaccessible to the average fully grown adult and meant exclusively for children. On the other hand, a child is not as likely as an adult to appreciate the raft invented by New Zealanders to rescue beached whales on display on the other side of the room. Dispersed among the entertaining information — such as a small chamber in which visitors can listen to the sounds that a variety of whales make — are a few more emotionally charged displays. In a jar, there is a torn plastic bag that once contained a pair of rubber gloves. This bag was extracted from the stomach of a Shepherd’s beaked whale and was determined to have been the cause of the whale’s death.

The Māori, like the population of New Zealand as a whole, were among some of the most prolific commercial whale hunters in the 19th and early 20th centuries, though now they represent some of the strongest opponents of commercial whaling. A few particularly vicious-looking weapons are encased beside a history of whaling in New Zealand, where the whale was used for its meat, oil, teeth, and bones. It was such a significant part of their lives that the Māori word parāoa means both “sperm whale” and “chief.”

The sperm whale is a prominent feature of the Whales exhibit: Two huge sperm whale skeletons face visitors the moment they walk through the doors to the exhibit. The skeletons dwarf even those of the dinosaurs visible a few floors below the entrance.
It is the largest of the toothed whales, a subgroup of whales that includes dolphins and porpoises. The blue and the humpback whales are known as baleen whales — ones whose diet consists mostly of krill. Toothed whales hunt larger fish and other marine creatures. One of the challenges of hunting in the darkest, deepest parts of the ocean is that visibility is minimal, so toothed whales rely on echolocation to locate prey. Echolocation is featured in a number of portions of the exhibition, including a video explaining how it functions as a sperm whale hunts a giant squid. The sound is expelled from an organ in the whale’s head, and — like sonar — bounces off an object in the distance back to the whale. The whales interpret the sound using a set of bones in the back of their jaws in a process similar to the one used by the bones inside a human’s ear. Whales’ fins are another place where the anatomy resembles human anatomy. One portion of the exhibit explains how whales evolved from hoofed mammals on land. There is enough information in this comprehensive exhibit to teach something new to almost everyone — a great example of the kind of multidisciplinary learning inspired by Andrew Carnegie.