Personal Perspectives

Whale fossils on the mainland, and into a CT scanner

Gabor Szathmary secures one of the plaster jackets containing a fossil "toothed" mysticete that was excavated on Vancouver Island.
Gabor Szathmary secures one of the plaster jackets containing a fossil "toothed" mysticete that was excavated on Vancouver Island.

After a few long days of hard work on the island, we were finally able to excavate and removenot just one, but two skeletons of an early "toothed" baleen whale from the rocks near the Carmanah Lighthouse. All told, it took our team 3 days, along with assistance from Parks Canada, a chartered boat, a chartered helicopter, car ferries, and one really nice diamond-bladed rock saw. In one day we made the whole trip back from the island to our staging area in greater Vancouver, or, as it's called, the Lower Mainland.

The end of any complex and gear-heavy field trip inevitably ends with as much planning as the beginning, including the back-breaking exercise of moving large field jackets, which contain the fossils, into a safe place (in this case, Bob Shadwick's lab at the University of British Columbia campus). The multiple plaster jackets probably weigh a total of over 300 lbs, with the largest individual jacket tipping in close to 100 lbs. It's really a bother to haul jackets much bigger, so we were fortunate. (Editor's note: Watch a time-lapse video of Nick and his team building a field jacket around a whale fossil on a previous expedition.)

But before packing everything to be shipped back to Washington, D.C., we took the plaster jackets to FPinnovations's CT imaging centre, near the UBC campus. There, at the forestry products company, one of our long-time colleagues Gabor Szathmary oversees one of the world's largest non-military CT scanning machines: a giant instrument the size of a warehouse that can scan tree logs 1 x 5 m in size, weighing as much as 2 tons. Perfect for scanning fossil whales.

Gabor, who worked with us previously on the tissues from extant whales, didn't disappoint this time either. With the large scanning energy and envelope, we were able to peer through the plaster jacket and rock to see the fossil skeletons locked within -- an amazing window into the specimen that will immeasurably improve our ability to extract the bone from its surrounding rock once we're back in Washington, D.C. Even more impressive: one of the skulls that we collected has both ear bones intact! This news is tremendously important because this special anatomical area can tell us a lot about the identity and hearing abilities of these extinct whales. We'll post more updates as a coda to this series once back in Washington D.C.

Editor's note: Read Nick's blog posts from earlier in the expedition. The first is about "toothed" baleen whales -- the type of whale fossil they are excavating on Vancouver Island -- and why he is interested in studying them. The second describes some tales from the field, including the discovery on-site of a second whale fossil.

May 2012