Earth’s biggest animals live and die in the ocean. But a few whales have long afterlives in museums — and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History boasts the world’s largest collection of whale material.
But all those bones present a tricky challenge. The massive specimens, among the largest ever collected, take up tons of space. So the museum houses them in its half-a-million-square-foot “whale warehouses” in Suitland, Md.
Emily Graslie, host of “The Brain Scoop” channel on YouTube, recently toured the warehouses and interviewed Michael McGowan, the museum’s curator of marine mammals. A 10-minute video of her journey is on YouTube.
It’s an intriguing dive into what it takes to collect and store these mammoth mammals, and a testament to the sheer volume of amazing artifacts the museum has accumulated over the years. McGowan shows Graslie some of the collection’s coolest, and weirdest, specimens, both new and old.
Increasingly, the museum’s collections are showing that they’re more than just a pile of old bones, baleen and other whaley body parts. Today, they’re thought of as genetic gold mines — repositories of DNA that store new insights into how and why marine mammals evolved.
Graslie, who’s “chief curiosity correspondent” for the Field Museum in Chicago, is a knowledgeable and entertaining host. It’s fun to watch her marvel over a narwhal tusk and sniff the skin of an Indian river dolphin collected in 1910 (apparently, it smells like shoes).
The segment is characteristically low-key, but wacky enough to keep your attention. You may not think you need to know about whale earwax or intestinal secretions, but after some time with Graslie and McGowan, you’ll be discussing both substances at the dinner table — and pulling out your smartphone to share the whale wonders with others.