The Wonderful Whale Warehouse | Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

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The Wonderful Whale Warehouse

Come behind the scenes to see this unique space

The warehouse has row after row of whale skulls. Those in the foreground are a local species of rorqual whale. In the background of the photo are bowhead whales from Pt. Barrow, Alaska.

 

Step inside the surreal space known as the “whale warehouse.” It’s not just whales in this offsite large mammal collection, but they are the biggest residents by far. This establishment holds the second largest collection of cetacean (whale and dolphin) skeletons in the entire world, making it a priceless resource for studying them and other marine mammals, as well as for understanding marine biodiversity, past and present.

“Over the past couple of decades, the mammal collections housed at the warehouse have been used in research that has resulted in more than 300 scholarly publications on a wide range of topics, including the natural history and evolutionary relationships of marine and terrestrial mammal species, anatomical studies, climate change, and diseases, to list just a few," said Mammalogy Collections Manager Jim Dines. "The importance of collections like these to science and to society is pretty much impossible to overstate.”

So what exactly is in this enormous collection of enormous animals? Let’s take a peek.

 

a photo of an enormous whale skull sitting on the floor of a giant warehouseA whopping 2,500 pounds and 18 feet long, this blue whale skull is the largest natural object in the collections (and we specify “natural” because the NHMLA collections include an airplane). It was added to the mammalogy collections in 1985 when the whale died after colliding with a ship coming into the Port of Los Angeles.

 

a photo of the neatly arranged bones of a dolphin's flipper, with all its 'knuckles' lined up and its shoulder blade next to itResting on a sieve tray are the flipper bones and shoulder blade of a bottlenose dolphin, the second most common species of dolphin. (The most common one is called, quite fittingly, the “common dolphin”). Looking at the bones of a dolphin flipper, you can appreciate its hyperphalangism — the multiple finger digits, or what we might call knuckles.

 

a photo of whale jaws as big as surf boards are leaned up against a shelfThe whale warehouse is one of the only places where you can see the lower jawbones of gray whales leaned up against a shelf like surfboards. The rest of the skulls are lined up to the left of the photo, and leaning against the back wall are fin whale skulls — the species of whale that greets visitors at the north entrance to NHMLA.

 

a photo big whale skull in the warehouseThe skull in the foreground is a juvenile humpback whale that was stranded in Seal Beach in 2016. The whale was part of an ongoing study, and was named Evergreen by researchers. To the left is a row of Evergreen’s back bones, and below him in a tray are the arranged bones of one of his flippers.

 

In addition to the extensive collection of whale bones, the warehouse contains other large mammals. Ones with “head gear” — like antlers and horns — can be especially challenging to store, so they’re sometimes suspended above the shelves.

 

a photo of rhino skulls, without their horns, arranged on a shelfThese rhinoceros skulls are nearly unrecognizable without their characteristic horns. But the horns are stored in a separate facility, since they are a heavily regulated animal part (worth far too much money on the black market).

 

a photo of hippo skulls arranged on a shelfAcross from the blue whale skull, and just next to the rhinos, you’ll find hippopotamuses (or hippopotami, if you’d rather), the closest living relatives of whales. The large teeth framing each hippo’s face are their tusks, which they use for protection from predators. The skull second in from the right is from a young hippo whose teeth hadn’t reach full size yet.

Hippos have a clever way to keep these teeth nice and sharp: the upper and lower tusks fit snugly together in a hippo’s bite, so when they open and close their mouth, the friction between them hones the tusks like a built-in knife sharpener.

 

A whale of a collection

As impressive as these specimens are to look at, it can be even more exciting to think about their scientific value. Each jaw, femur, vertebra, and tooth stores information about the animal who formed it, locking away the story of its life — where it lived, what it ate, how it behaved. These bones are treasure troves of information, safely stored and cared for in the beloved NHMLA whale warehouse.

And some researchers are just as interested in what animals might be living in between, underneath, and flying above these bones. Our entomology department researchers sometimes visit to see what interesting bugs they can find among the skulls of mighty whales.

 

 

 

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