A 6 ton model, and a baby that puts on 90 kg a day: rorquals part I


Sorry, nothing new: time again for something from Tet Zoo ver 1...

Late in the 1920s, plans to replace the old whale hall of the British Museum (Natural History) were fulfilled. Thanks to the new, steel-girdled hall, the Blue whale skeleton - by now kept in storage for 42 years due to lack of space - could finally be put on display [adjacent image, © NHM]. This skeleton belonged to a 25 m animal that had stranded at Wexford Bay, SE Ireland, in 1891. It - as in, the skeleton alone - weighs over 10 tons. But some people at the museum wanted more, and in 1937 taxidermist Percy Stammwitz (1881-1954) made the bold suggestion that a life-sized model of a Blue whale could be constructed for display alongside the skeleton. Later that year Stammwitz and his son, Stuart, began work on the project, their technical advisor being cetologist Francis C. Fraser (1903-1978).

Scaling up from a clay model, a wooden frame was constructed, and this was then covered in wire mesh and plaster. A trapdoor on the stomach was constructed for (I presume) internal maintenance, though apparently the workmen would sneak inside the model for secret smoking. On several occasions I've heard rumours that a time capsule was left inside this trapdoor before it was sealed: Stearn (1981) made no mention of this specifically, but did write that a telephone directory and some coins were left inside (p. 132). The completed model weighed between 6 and 7 tons and, when the time came for the whale to be painted, Stammwitz and Fraser disagreed, eventually choosing bluish steel-grey. Completed in December 1938, it was the largest whale model ever made though larger models, constructed from the same design templates, have since been produced by several American museums [image below © NHM].


The Blue whale Balaenoptera musculus is the biggest of the rorquals. What are rorquals? They are the eight or so Balaenoptera species of the mysticete family Balaenopteridae*, all of which open their jaws wide to engulf masses of prey and possess a highly distensible throat pouch and extensible longitudinal grooves on the throat and belly. They occur in seas worldwide and range from 6 to 30 m in length. The only other living balaenopterid** is the Humpback Megaptera novaeangliae, and it is generally regarded as the sister-taxon to the rorquals. I've seen two explanations for the term rorqual. The commonest is that this French word derives from the Norse rørhval, itself derived from 'reydharhvalr' in Old Norse, and means 'red throat', this supposedly being a reference to the reddish colour visible between the throat grooves when the whale's buccal pouch is extended (Berta & Sumich 1990). It is also claimed that rørhval means 'grooved whale' - a reference to those longitudinal grooves.

* Most books on whales state that there are five rorqual species. As with so many tetrapod groups, the number of recognised species has increased in recent years, both as 'old' species have been resurrected from synonymy (Antarctic minke B. bonaerensis and Pygmy bryde's B. edeni), and as new species have been described (Omura's whale B. omurai).

** Some workers have included the Grey whale Eschrichtius robustus within Balaenopteridae. It is mostly agreed, however, that Eschrichtius belongs to a small clade (Eschrichtiidae) best regarded as the sister-taxon to Balaenopteridae.


Rorquals grow fast, reaching sexual maturity at between 5 and 12 years of age in the larger species. They can produce up to 1.5 calves per 2-year period, though three years between calves is probably more normal. Pregnant females increase their weight by 26% and, thanks to lipids stored in their visceral fat and blubber, increase their total energy budget by a staggering 80% (VÃkingsson 1995). After a pregnancy of 10-13 months, babies are suckled for 4-10 months and (in blue whales) are provided with 200 litres of milk a day. Unsurprisingly, babies increase their weight substantially during this time, with a 2-3 ton newborn blue whale putting on 90 kg a day, and reaching 20 tons by the time it is weaned. They are the fastest growing baby mammals. Rorquals are long-lived, with minkes B. acutorostrata reaching their forth or fifth decades, Sei B. borealis surviving to 65 or so, and Fins B. physalus to 85 or 90, or possibly 100. Incidentally, right whales (balaenids) are thought to survive into their second century, but they're not rorquals [Fin whale shown here, from wikipedia].

We all know that rorquals are big, that they possess baleen, and that they feed by engulfing crustaceans, small fish and other prey. They spend summer in the polar regions, where they feed and put on weight, and then they migrate in the winter to the tropics, where they breed and give birth to their enormous calves... but they don't all do this, with some populations of some species being non-migratory. Of course, there's more, a lot more, and in the next few posts [UPDATE] later posts I'd like to introduce a few details that you might not have encountered before... unless, that is, you're a cetologist, or a close friend of one.


Thanks - mostly - to aerial photography, most of us are now familiar with the true body shape of live rorquals. They are shockingly gracile and incredibly long-bodied, with a shape that (when seen in dorsal view) has been likened to that of a champagne flute. While people had known this for a while (Roy Chapman Andrews wrote in 1916 of the Fin whale's 'slender body ... built like a racing yacht', for example), what may or may not be surprising is that only recently have people in general come to realize that rorquals are shaped like this. Basing their reconstructions on beached carcasses, or on rorquals killed by whaling vessels, artists and scientists had previously thought that rorquals were stouter, with fat bellies and flabby throats. Rorquals were still being depicted this way as recently as the 1960s, as in (for example) the excellent paintings and drawings of Sir Peter Scott [see above, borrowed from the Wildlife in Danger Brooke Bonds card set].


By photographing live sei and minke whales, underwater, from close range, Gordon Williamson (1972) argued that the traditional 'baggy-throat' reconstructions failed to show the true body shape of the animals. His drawings, reconstructed from his photos (which invariably failed to capture the entire animal in the frame), were dead accurate and among the first to depict rorquals in this way. Williamson's whales were all captured, by harpoon, from a commercial whaling vessel. No explosive was placed in the harpoon head (normally, the harpoon head explodes within the body of the whale), so a harpooned whale was not killed immediately and was simply tethered to the ship. As it swam around, gradually tiring, Williamson approached it in the water and took his photos [the image below shows a young rorqual that beached in Florida in 2002].


More on rorquals in a later post, this time focusing on the biomechanics of feeding: From cigar to elongated, bloated tadpole: rorquals part II.

Refs - -

Berta, A. & Sumich, J. L. 1999. Marine Mammals: Evolutionary Biology. Academic Press, San Diego.

Stearn, W. T. 1981. The Natural History Museum at South Kensington. Heinemann, London.

VÃkingsson, G. A. 1995. Body condition of fin whales during summer off Iceland. In Blix, A. S., Walløe, L. & Ulltang, Ø. (eds) Whales, Seals, Fish and Man. Elsevier Science, pp. 361-369.

Williamson, G. R. (1972). The true body shape of rorqual whales Journal of Zoology, 167, 277-286


More like this

The Gothenburg Museum of Natural History has an actual stuffed blue whale on exhibition (allegedly the only one in the world). It's a juvenile of "only" 16 m, but standing next to it is still humbling enough.

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 01 Mar 2009 #permalink

Oh, whales... Some weeks ago I had loaded some HTML-converted books about whales (in Russian) to my site. If you have authomatic translating mashines, you may read them. I think one of the most interesting books between them is "Around the world for whales" by Boris Zenkovich (published in 1954, thanks to my mother-in-law for the opportunity to work with this book rarity) - about the beginning of commercial whaling in Soviet Union. There is one chapter about blue whale hunting - here:
And here it is the table of the data about biology of large whales (some baleen whales and sperm whale):
And the most awful data - the commercial whaling:
There are three tables:
Whaling in Soviet Union (Far East)
Whaling of Soviet Union in Antarctica
General whaling in Antarctica in 1904/05 - 1951/52

By Pavel I. Volkov (not verified) on 02 Mar 2009 #permalink

Lots? Actually I suppose it isn't technically "stuffed" - it's got an internal wood and steel frame to which the skin is attached.

The skeleton is mounted just beside it. To drive home its juvenile status there is also the jawbones of a largish adult lying below the juvie skeleton.

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 02 Mar 2009 #permalink

It is also claimed that rørhval means 'grooved whale' - a reference to those longitudinal grooves.

Would fit German Rohr and Röhre "tube".

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 02 Mar 2009 #permalink

Nice article, but weren't the largest recorded individuals of _B. musculus_ some 33.6 meters long? Not more than 26 meters today, nevertheless...

I'm sure I read somewhere that genetic analysis of Blue whales show them as part of a clade with Humpbacks and Grey Whales, separate from the other Balaenopterids ... probably wrong though.

Different molecular studies have placed B. musculus as the sister taxon of various different balaenopterids; several molecular studies have even placed Eschrichtius within the balaenopterid crown group, although this is likely to be some kind of artifact (we now know that Eschrichtiids likely diverged from rorquals sometime during the middle or Late Miocene, and the first fossils attributable to true Balaenoptera appear during the latest Miocene (<6 Ma).

In any event, give me until later this afternoon and I'll have those ref's for ya. I'm not at the office yet...

Here's a balaenopterid question...

I've seen the claim on a number of sites that, somewhere in the ocean, there is a single hybrid Blue x Humpback whale, which is possibly responsible for recorded whale "songs" unlike those of any known species.

Now, as i'd never seen an actual reference for these claims (even a newspaper article), and they are in different genera and there is such a huge size difference between them (Blue over twice the length of Humpback and at least 6 times the weight), i'd assumed the claims to be baseless (possibly a distortion of the documented Blue x Fin whale hybrids) - but if there is the possibility that B. musculus and Megaptera are actually each other's closest relatives (would that mean the Humpback would have to become Balaenoptera novaeangliae, or the Blue given a new genus?), it makes me re-evaluate the possibility...

So, has a Balaenoptera x Megaptera hybrid actually been documented?

(I also know of the captive-bred Tursiops x Pseudorca hybrids, including a second-generation hybrid with a Tursiops father and an F1 hybrid mother, which i suppose is a similar proportional size difference, albeit at a much smaller absolute scale. And i suppose the buoyancy of water could help... but still, there must be some Blue and/or Humpback out there with a really odd paraphilia...)

According to Richard Fortey the blue whale model at the Natural History Museum also housed an illicit still. Maybe not the best place for a crafty fag!

Fortey, R. 2008. Dry Store Room No.1: the secret life of the Natural History Museum. HarperPress, London, 338 pp.

By Mark Evans (not verified) on 02 Mar 2009 #permalink

I have a very old book called "Whale Hunting with gun and Camera" by Roy Chapman andrews..bought it years ago and it was old then printed in 1916...fascinating to see pictures in it of whales now extinct..I might recommend Farley Mowat`s , "A Whale for the Killing"...

I love that last picture. Really shows how slender these whales are. And I love that gaping mouth--the skull is so lightly constructed!

Way long ago Sea World of San Diego become home to an infant grey whale. Big sensation in town, and the local news covered it extensively. Film and tape of the animal were shown on the local news, and in some shots you could see the whale growing. Literally. New hide appearing before your eyes. It was neat.

"Completed in December 1938, it was the largest whale model ever constructed though larger models, constructed from the same design templates, have since been produced by several American museums"
Disambiguating-- to the same templates as each other, not to the same templates as the one in the BMNH.
Tha American M of NH, in New York, used to have a 76 foot (I think) model, based on a specimen that beached near New York: it was the old-fashioned "plump" sort of image. They now have a 95 foot (again, length is memory) which is I think from the same mold as the Smithsonian's in Washington.

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 02 Mar 2009 #permalink

I hope you talk about Jeremy Goldbogen's work on feeding biomechanics!

To Alan Kellogg:
Gigi? Oh, I also converted to HTML Russian edition of book about her, here:
As for Farley Mowatt's book, I read it a long time ago - it is the typical example of human relation to whales as to chunks of alive meat. It's very sad book.
In Zenkovich's book cases of caught of hybrid Fin x blue whales are mentioned. He says from one and half thousand whales 11 ones where hybrids mixing external appearance of blue whale and baleen of Fin whale, and vice versa.

By Pavel Volkov (not verified) on 02 Mar 2009 #permalink

Phylogenies and hybrids...

A few funky phylogenies have been recovered for rorquals. Rychel et al. (2004) recovered a DNA-based phylogeny where minkes were the sister-taxon to a grey whale + 'other balaenopterids' clade, and - within 'other balaenopterids' â a humpback + fin whale clade was sister to a blue + Brydeâs + sei clade. Deméré et al. (2005) also found the humpback to be nested within Balaenoptera in some phylogenies: it was often the sister-taxon to the Sei. Takeshi et al. (2005) recovered a humpback + fin clade, while blue, fin and Bryde's grouped together. May-Collado & Agnarsson (2006) found Megaptera to be the sister-taxon to a sei-fin clade, but a minke whale + grey whale clade was sister to the humpback + sei-fin clade. Several other molecular studies have found Eschrictius to be nested within Balaenopteridae. However, for more 'conventional' phylogenies see Steeman (2007).

As for hybrids, I know of blue x fin hybrids (e.g., Spilliaert et al. 1991), but I can't recall a blue x humpback one. Anyone?

Refs - -

Deméré, T. A., Berta, A. & McGowen, M. R. 2005. The taxonomic and evolutionary history of fossil and modern balaenopterid mysticetes. Journal of Mammalian Evolution 12, 99-143.

May-Collado, L. & Agnarsson, I. 2006. Cytochrome b and Bayesian inference of whale phylogeny. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 38, 344-354.

Rychel, A., Reeder, T. W. & Berta, A. 2004. Phylogeny of mysticete whales based on mitochondrial and nuclear data. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 32, 892-901.

Spilliaert, R., Vikingsson, G., Arnason, U., Palsdottir, A., Sigurjonsson, J. & Arnason, A. 1991. Species hybridization between a female Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) and a male Fin whale (B. physalus): molecular and morphological documentation. The Journal of Heredity 82, 269-274.

Steeman, M. E. 2007. Cladistic analysis and a revised classification of fossil and recent mysticetes. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 150, 875-894.

Takeshi, S. Masato, N., Healy, H., Mutsuo, G., Hidehiro, K., Naohisa, K., Luis, P., Ying, C., Fordyce, R., Masami, H. & Norihiro, O. 2005. Mitochondrial phylogenetics and evolution of mysticete whales. Systematic Biology 54, 77-90.

Actually... not many cetacean workers like Steeman (2007), nor do they consider it conventional. Aside from putting forth a crappy phylogeny, while visiting the USNM to look at fossil mysticetes, was handed a copy of an in-press manuscript, and subsequently published a name taken directly from said manuscript (which only came out about 4 or 5 months later).

Steeman found some odd groupings among other mysticetes, some which do not appear to have much support, and some taxa that were probably far too incomplete to include.

Interesting - please tell us more.. what was the 'stolen' taxon? Like many, I'm sure, I have assumed that a paper published in the prestigious ZJLS was of the highest standard.


Yes, I was talking about Gigi.

Upon release she was supposed to have a harness carrying telemetry gear so scientists could follow her in the wild. She scraped it off less than a day later.

Like many, I'm sure, I have assumed that a paper published in the prestigious ZJLS was of the highest standard.

Oh, we recently published a paper in Contributions to Zoology about nothing else than the fact that (part of) a particular ZJLS paper was nowhere near the highest standard, and we're working on another that (among many other things) says the same about (part of) another ZJLS paper. Like everywhere, peer-review occasionally fails (this includes attempts at selecting competent reviewers).

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 04 Mar 2009 #permalink

Hey Darren,

Best part is, the 'stolen taxon' is even documented in a third paper, Bohaska 2008.

Here's what he says (paraphrased):
-mentions that Steeman received a copy of Whitmore and Barnes (2008) (from Frank Whitmore), which was an in-press manuscript when he visited USNM, and cites the specimen which shortly later became the Herpetocetus transatlanticus holotype.
-Steeman failed to mention any assistance from Whitmore

Steeman named the "Herpetocetinae", which is in the title and named in the paper by Whitmore and Barnes (2008). It's pretty obvious that one of two things happened: 1) taxon is mined directly from manuscript he received; 2) taxon is coined independently by Steeman, who publishes it anyway even after receiving copy of manuscript and realizing someone beat him to it.

Bohaska, D.J. 2008. Addendum. Geology and Paleontology of the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina, IV. Virginia Museum of Natural History Special Publication 14.

Steeman, M. E. 2007. Cladistic analysis and a revised classification of fossil and recent mysticetes. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 150, 875-894.

Whitmore, F.C. and L.G. Barnes, 2008. The Herpetocetinae, a new subfamily of extinct baleen whales (Mammalia, Cetacea, Cetotheriidae). Geology and Paleontology of the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina, IV. Virginia Museum of Natural History Special Publication 14.

Well, I hope that's not another Aëtogate.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 05 Mar 2009 #permalink