The flipper of a baby whale

During the first excavation at Carmel Church in 1991, I mapped the exposure and noted all the places I saw bone weathering out of the hillside. One of the things I recorded was a ‘possible juvenile mysticete.” In 1998 there was finally a small excavation at that spot, and sure enough, a partial skeleton of a young baleen whale was collected.

We didn’t get much of this animal, and a lot of it has not yet been prepared. We recovered most of the neck vertebrae, all with detached epiphyses (a sign of a quite young animal), as well as some thoracic vertebrae and ribs, a possible periotic bone, a possible lower jaw (which hasn’t been removed from its jacket), and a partial flipper, shown above. In keeping with the apparent youthfulness of this whale, the ends of the long bones in the flipper were all detached and missing; these seem to generally fuse at a fairly young age, so I suspect this whale was very young when it died.

If you look closely at the ulna above (the bone closest to the scale bar), you may notice that it looks a little odd just above the left end of the scale bar. I’ve highlighted the area of interest below:

This is a huge, swollen knob of bone; it’s even more obvious in posterior view. This seems to be another injured and healed bone, reminiscent of the lower jaw in “Sinistra”. Given this whale’s young age and its damaged flipper, we’ve named it “Nemo” after the Disney character.

I was interested in seeing this break in greater detail, so this morning I ran “Nemo’s” ulna, along with some other bones, to Tim’s orthodontist, Dr. Edward Snyder. Dr. Snyder’s office is about a block from the museum, and he has an X-ray machine that they use to photograph the hands of their patients (they use epiphyseal fusion in the hand to determine if the patient is finished growing, so they can schedule things like implants). “Nemo’s” ulna was small enough to get some images of the injured area. Below, the top two images are lateral view, while the bottom ones are posterior. In the marked-up images, the red line is the original surface of the ulna, while the green lines are outlining areas of displaced bone:

The break turns out to be much more severe that was obvious from the outside. There are several large chunks of bone that broke loose and shifted around, before the bony callus grew over the area and locked everything in place. It’s interesting to note that this wound seems to have healed completely, even though “Nemo” was apparently a quite young whale when he died, and there’s no reason to suspect that the flipper injury had anything to do with his eventual death.

I’ve not yet had a chance to examine the X-rays closely, but it looks like a lot is going on here. Given the promising initial results I may also see about getting some additional angles and higher resolution images. I’d like to thank Dr. Snyder for donating these images and getting the study of “Nemo” off to a good start.

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2 Responses to The flipper of a baby whale

  1. Doug says:

    A most curious case. What might have caused such an injury?

    also i forgot to ask in the last post: how’s the Rapohannok specimen coming?

  2. Alton Dooley says:

    I don’t know what might have caused the injury, but I’m working on some ideas. Stay tuned!

    I haven’t done much with the Rappahannock whale in a few months, while I’ve been concentrating on Picasso. I’m hoping to get back to it soon.

    The Potomac sperm whale is coming along nicely, though. Expect an update tomorrow or Friday.

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