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Removing 16 years of dust from NHM’s whale skeletons

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What secrets lie within 16 years of whale skeleton dust?

In the Mammals Gallery in London’s Natural History Museum, four magnificent whale skeletons are suspended from the ceiling. Access to them was a logistical challenge for years, hindered by “space, time, and financial requirements.” But thanks to recent gallery refurbishments, the museum’s conservation team could finally get to this long overdue work.

The first of the team’s now-annual cleaning of the bones tackled two layers of dust: “a soft and fluffy top layer, as well as a compacted layer underneath.”

dust up close
This quiet NHM video documents the oh-so-satisfying process of cleaning their bowhead whale’s 160-year-old bones. From their site:

“It is important that these specimens are cleaned and looked after because dust is hydroscopic, meaning that it acts like a sponge and draws in water that can damage the bones underneath. Pests can also colonise the dust and start to call it home, as some organisms will feed off the dust itself…”

vacuuming dust off the whale bones

“All of it had to be collected and disposed of as hazardous waste, but not before a few samples were collected. Some of these were sent to be tested to see what, exactly, might be growing on and within the dust.

“This isn’t the first time that the team have done this. When Hope the blue whale was moved to Hintze Hall in 2017, the skeleton also underwent a deep clean. The dust from Hope was analysed to reveal a whole community of fungi and yeast living within it and on the whale’s bones too. They found species of Penicillin as well as yeasts that have also been found in alpine glaciers and sediment from north Siberia.”

cleaning the bowhead whale
Watch these related videos next:
β€’Β What is dust made of?
β€’Β The world’s largest collection of whale bones
β€’Β What Color Is a Blue Whale?
β€’Β Whale Fall (After Life of a Whale)
β€’Β An active whale fall with scavengers caught by Nautilus Live

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