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NMSU museum completes assembly of whale skeleton

New Mexico State University biology professor Peter Houde was collecting specimens of sea birds on the coast of Oregon in 1993 when he discovered something that fired his imagination -- parts of sea dwelling mammals, sometimes whole bodies, wash up on that state's beaches from the Pacific Ocean.

NMSU professor Peter Houde stands beneath the skeleton of a 25-foot-long Minke whale recently assembled and on exhibit at the university biology department's vertebrate museum. (NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan)

Never one to miss an opportunity, Houde, the curator of the biology department's vertebrate museum, thought it might be an easy task to obtain one of the skeletons for NMSU.

He was wrong, he said recently -- it wasn't an easy task at all. But seven years and countless hours of negotiation later, the skeleton of a 25-foot-long female Minke whale hangs suspended from the ceiling of the museum in the basement of the university's Foster Hall.

"Under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, it's illegal to buy, sell or trade the body of a marine mammal," Houde said. "Legally, I couldn't buy or trade for the skeleton of a whale from the Oregon coast, but we got one, thanks to the generosity of Dr. Debbie Duffield, a biologist at the Portland State University. She gave us the skeleton of a Minke whale she already had on hand."

Director at that time of the northwest region of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, Duffield is the legal owner of any whale carcass that washed up on the Oregon coast during her tenure. After she had the skeleton cleaned and prepared, she shipped it in two crates to its new home in New Mexico, Houde said.

The crates arrived in 1998, but the skeleton's assembly was not completed until Oct. 11, 2000, he added.

"I had to model and replace a scapula, fin bones and some ribs that were lost while the body lay on the beach, but another reason it took so long is that I thought it would be more of a job than it was. I thought we'd need a welder to help us put in rods to hold it together. It turned out not to be that difficult, but we did have the Physical Plant Department come in and put six bolts in the ceiling. The bolts can hold 200 pounds each and the skeleton weighs less than 400 pounds," he said.

The smallest of the baleen whales -- whales like gray and blue whales whose teeth have been replaced by fringed plates and who get their food by "screening" the water -- Minkes typically grow to between 25 and 30 feet and weigh six to nine tons.

With a population estimated at about 770,000, they are the last baleen whales existing in large enough numbers to make it economical to hunt them commercially. Japan and Norway, the only two countries to continue commercial hunting since a moratorium was declared in 1985 by International Whaling Commission, reportedly have taken as many as 1,000 each year, Houde said.

Vertebrate museum personnel are interested in doing more "outreach" programs, inviting groups in for tours, Houde said. He said he hopes the whale skeleton will help attract visitors and that it will allow the staff to discuss a number of topics.

"Using this as a sounding board, we can talk about biodiversity, endangered species or comparative anatomy. We could point out that the bones in a Minke's fins are the same bones as those in a bat's wing, for example. Or that the Minke's nearest land-based relatives are animals like deer, hippos and pigs," he said.

Begun by professors Elmer O. Wooten and C. H. Tyler Townsend in the 1890s, the vertebrate museum is the oldest collection of its kind in New Mexico, Houde said. It preserves specimens collected in the 1890s, including animals that are extinct, no longer exist in the region or are now protected so that it is impossible to obtain specimens, he said.

One of three biology department collections, it contains approximately 26,000 specimens. The department also houses a 50,000-specimen insect collection and a 60,000-specimen plant collection in other locations, he added.

Groups interested in visiting the museum should try to arrange the trip at least a month in advance. Formal requests on official letterhead are appreciated, but those interested can make initial inquiries by contacting Houde at (505) 646-6019 or by e-mail at phoude@nmsu.edu.

Photo below is available at http://kiernan.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/whale.jpg.
For a print, call (505) 646-3221.
CUTLINE: NMSU professor Peter Houde stands beneath the skeleton of a 25-foot-long Minke whale recently assembled and on exhibit at the university biology department's vertebrate museum. (NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan)

Jack King
Nov. 8, 2000