Beached Galveston Whale Raises Concerns and Curiosities

Back in December, a 44-foot sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis) washed ashore and died on the Galveston coastline near the Terramar subdivision. It was sighted by a passerby who spied it rolling in the waves, its spout the only clear sign that it was alive. A crowd gathered, including a local dolphin rescue group and machinery crews who brought out a front-end loader.

Not much could be done for the whale, unfortunately, since its size prevented advocacy groups and interested citizens from helping it back into the ocean. A frightened whale, rolling in the waves, poses a serious threat of crushing those who wish to help it. Onlookers had no choice but to watch and hope for the best.

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Sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis)

When the whale stopped spouting, a sign it was no longer breathing, crews dragged it ashore so a necropsy, or animal autopsy, could be performed and its species could be identified. After the seven-hour procedure to determine its cause of death, results were inconclusive and remained murky for several weeks. A number of combined factors could have contributed to its becoming stranded. The whale was dragged on shore by front-end loaders and buried in a deep trench near the water table, common practice for any beached cetacean.

“Typically when dolphins are beached, we take them to an off-site location and bury them. This whale was 60,000 pounds, so we buried it at the site where it washed up,” said Mary Beth Bassett, Public Relations Coordinator for the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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Woodcut of Dutch whalers in the 1800s.

The World Wildlife Fund lists the sei whale as an endangered species, with less than 12,000 individuals estimated to live in today’s oceans. Commercial whalers targeted the species and hunted them heavily when blue and fin whales became scarce, driving their numbers dangerously low. While advocacy groups continue to work to restore the population, the sei whale, and ocean-going whales in general, remain difficult to track and understand, and so must be protected through international whaling laws.

Because whales use echolocation to navigate, sonar from commercial ships might confuse whales, driving them into dangerous situations that lead to beachings, explained Tina Petway, Houston Museum of Natural Science Associate Curator of Malacology. This could have played a factor in the death of this whale, which was also probably ill and its navigational faculties already impaired.

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Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus)

“Whales frequently have parasites that get in the inner ear and cause them to have echolocation problems and lose their balance easily,” Petway said. “They can be led off their paths when their echolocation doesn’t seem to work.”

Petway theorized that some of these ocean-going whales unused to inshore areas can become “lost” between sandbars. When led astray, they might pass a sandbar and believe they are heading back out to sea when in fact, they are in a trough between sandbars. By this time, they are trapped and the inshore current continues to push them further onto the beach.

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Bryce’s whale, (Balaenoptera brydei) with three distinctive ridges on its head.

“But something was wrong before it got stranded,” Petway said.

The sei whale belongs to a family of fin whales characterized by a small, backward-curving dorsal fin far down their backs. Only four whales have this specific characteristic, the blue whale, the fin whale (its name no surprise), the Bryde’s (pronounced broo-des) whale, and the sei whale. The Bryde’s and the sei are difficult to distinguish from one another. They are almost identical in size and shape, but the Bryde’s has three ridges on the top of its head running from its blowhole to its snout, while the sei whale has only one.

“Almost all species of whales can be found in the Gulf of Mexico,” Petway said. “We have pods of killer whales (orcas) in the Gulf of Mexico. They don’t travel. They are resident pods.”

Baleen

Fin whales all use baleen to catch and filter krill out of large gulps of seawater. They swim through large schools of krill, or copopods, with their mouths open, and push the water through the baleen (which has the appearance of broom bristles hanging from the top of the mouth) with their tongues. Like dust, the baleen catches the krill, which the whale then swallows.

plastic ocean

The growing amount of bits of plastic in the ocean, now so far broken down some of it is microscopic, is a concern for baleen whales. Because the bits of plastic are about the same size as krill, they are filtered out and swallowed with all the rest. Scientists are unsure how this affects whales since they are difficult to study, but it can’t be good. You can help these whales when you observe World Oceans Day June 8 this year by making a pledge to reduce your plastic use and begin recycling. Spread the word and encourage others to do the same. Plastic in the oceans is a serious world emergency. Whales like the sei and other fin whales, which are already endangered, need no more problems threatening their numbers, and plastic affects the entire food chain, including we humans, who also depend on the oceans as a source of food.

You can size yourself up to a complete whale skeleton in HMNS’s newest exhibit, Cabinet of Curiosities, opening Friday, May 6. Personnel are currently restoring the skeleton, which has been in storage for a number of years, and will hang it from the ceiling as part of this hands-on history of wonder.

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The Adventures of Archie the Traveling T. Rex: Big Bend National Park

by Charlotte Brohi

Well, it’s Archie reporting in….

After my visit to Paris, I thought it high time I went to a place closer to home that has fossil records of some of my friends in the dinosaur world. Can you guess where?

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So, I hunkered down in my suitcase for the short flight to Midland, Texas, my jumping-off point for my adventure to the Big Bend National Park. Don’t worry. I brought sun protection (a hat) and extra water because I was planning to hike as well as learn a few things.

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You are probably asking, “but Archie, why Big Bend?” To be honest, I was totally inspired to go WILD and visit a national park ever since I saw the new Giant Screen/IMAX film at HMNS called National Park Adventure 3D. That’s me in my 3D glasses below. Spoiler alert: this film showcases 13 of the famous parks and it has better music than what is on my playlist!

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Feeling adventurous, and having learned that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park system I just knew I HAD to go! How often do we get to celebrate a centennial? Do you know who is credited with this monumental feat? If you shouted to yourself, “President Teddy Roosevelt” then you would be correct! Sadly, he lost both his wife and mother on the same day but he credited his time in the wilderness as crucial to his emotional healing and thus inspired him to protect the wilderness. I LOVE being in the wild too, don’t you?

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Because I didn’t want to play favorites I also ventured to Big Bend State Park. You can’t tell from this photo, but Big Bend is considered moderate-altitude (between 5,000 and 6,000 feet). I still had to catch my breath and take it slow up the trail. Remember, altitude can negatively affect those who are older and can only use half of their appendages when walking… Like moí! See, I did learn something in Paris.

As I prepared for my hike, I took a look around and remembered that Big Bend has the youngest of all Texas dinosaurs, dating to the end of the Mesozoic, 66 million years ago! I am walking in the footsteps of greatness!

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The next day was pretty hot (100 degrees, to be precise) so I decided to stay cool in my traveling suitcase as I pondered the fact that more than 90 dinosaur species, nearly 100 plant species, and more than two dozen fish, frogs, salamanders, turtles, crocodiles, lizards, and even early mammals have been discovered here. But to most of us, it’s just so darn BEAUTIFUL!

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And because I’m a good steward of the environment, I didn’t pack anything extra to take home with me. It’s important to preserve all cultural and natural artifacts. So I only took photographs and left only footprints.

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Did you know that the Rio Grande River is the international boundary (1,000 miles) between Mexico and the United States, and the “big bend” follows more than 100 miles of that boundary? In fact, the park was named after the area, which has a large bend in the river. I love learning the origins of names. Just like my name, Tyrannosaurus Rex, which comes from Greek and Latin roots that mean “tyrant lizard king.” My friends just call me T. rex, though. Or Archie. It’s less intimidating.

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The Stars at Night are Big and Bright…

Once the sun went down, I gazed at more than 2,000 stars. Big Bend has the least light pollution of any other National Park in the lower 48 states. There’s even a song to celebrate its greatness. I also used this cool app called StarView to identify stars and planets in the night sky. Jupiter, one of the five bright planets, was indeed bright and beautiful!

I didn’t want to leave, so I promised myself I’d come back when it’s a little cooler. Shoot, I may even decide to head to the McDonald Observatory in Ft. Davis (which has nothing to do with burgers and fries). But until then, I’ll get my stargazing fix at the George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park, another very cool place to see the stars and enjoy the natural beauty of the great state of Texas.

You can find Archie and the whole Adopt-a-Dino family in the HMNS Museum Store. Drop by and take one home!

Editor’s Note: Charlotte is the Vice President of Film Program and Distribution for the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

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Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 4/25-5/1

Last week’s featured #HMNSBlockParty creation is by Miles Sparks (age: 8):

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Want to get your engineering handwork featured? Drop by our Block Party interactive play area and try your own hand building a gravity-defying masterpiece. Tag your photos with #HMNSBlockParty.

Film Screening – Fabergé: A Life of Its Own with Dorothy McFerrin
Monday, Apr. 25
6:30 p.m.
Released in June 2015, the documentary “Fabergé: A Life of Its Own,” tells the fascinating story behind of one of the most prestigious names in luxury from the Russian revolution to today. This program is cosponsored by Rice University’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies.

Behind-the-Scenes Tour – La Virgen de Guadalupe
Tuesday, Apr. 26
6:00 p.m.
Going back to the 8th century in a struggle between Muslim and Spanish naval forces and on to the appearance in the Aztec capital in the 15th century, Virgin of Guadalupe was adopted as a symbol in Europe and the New World during times of friction. Through the artwork and artifacts on display, your guide will trace the increasing role the Virgin of Guadalupe played in society.

Class – Amber Workshop
Tuesday, Apr. 26
6:00 p.m.
Join paleontologist David Temple for an examination of these amazing natural time capsules. This amber workshop includes time in the Amber Secrets, Feathers from the Age of Dinosaurs exhibition, Morian Hall of Paleontology, and in the classroom where you will polish a piece of raw amber that will be yours to keep.

 

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My Little Stinky: Corpse Flower Cousin on Display at the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Meet Lois’s baby cousin, Amorphophallus paeoniifolius. It may not be as large or as smelly as the corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) that bloomed at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in 2010, but that doesn’t make it any less awesome! It’s blooming in the Cockrell Butterfly Center right now, and by the end of the weekend, it should be fully open and ready for a big debut.

Amorphophallus paeoniifolius

A. paeoniifolius bloom beginning to open. Photo by Soni Holladay.

Lois and this flower, also known as the elephant foot yam, are both Aroids, being of the Amorphophallus genus, characterized by the spathe and spadix floral structure and sharing the same distinct life cycle. The plant consists of an underground storage organ called a tuber, which differ in size and shape between plants and species.

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As the bloom began to open, we placed it in the CBC for our guests to observe. Photo by Soni Holladay.

When the conditions are right, A. paeoniifolius (pronounced pay-owe-knee-foe-lee-us) sends a single leaf out of the center of the tuber, which looks a lot like a small tree. The leaves typically have a tall, sometimes spotted or bumpy petiole resembling a tree trunk that branches out at the top to form leaflets. A paeoniifolius gets its name from the look of its leaflets, which recall the foliage of a peony plant. This leaf stage can last for several months — maybe up to a year — after which the leaf slowly starts to break down. It turns yellow, then brown, and eventually it falls over.

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The spathe will continue to open through the weekend, giving the bloom the look of a skirt around the central spadix. Photo by Jason Schaefer.

The tuber then stays dormant for between three and nine months. If the tuber is developed enough to support an inflorescence, or flower growth, it will bloom. The blooms of an Amorphophallus are spectacular at any size, though not as stinky. Size doesn’t matter as far as stench goes. We sometimes have smaller species blooming in our greenhouses that can make your nosehairs curl.

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This close, the bloom smells faintly sour, like dumpster garbage. Photo by Jason Schaefer.

As the plant continues to bloom, the spathe will widen and “collapse” open, giving it the look of a skirt around the spadix. Right now, it looks more like a collar. Come visit the CBC this weekend to have a look (and a smell) at this fascinating plant, on display right next to its larger cousin, currently in the “tree-like” stage of its life cycle.

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A. titanum. Photo by Chris Arreaga.

Editor’s Note: The A. paeoniifolius flower enjoyed a long weekend at HMNS, then moved on to the next stage in its life cycle. Look for updates on this flower, the corpse flower and other Amorphophallus species on this blog and in social media.

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