The fate of a great number of species depends on the understanding of their past, their present situation, and the environmental challenges they face. One way to learn more about them is to study museum natural history collections, which provide invaluable sources of raw data for scientists to use in their investigations.

As Curator of Vertebrates at the museum, I oversee national collections that encompass mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. Among these are world-class specimens of whales and other marine mammals representing the major species that inhabit Canadian waters.

A technician stands behind shelves holding whale skulls.
Technician Alan McDonald stands among some of the whale bones stored in the museum’s Large Skeleton Room. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

Included in this collection is an assemblage of specimens that had come from the Arctic Biological Station of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which had closed down in 1992. An estimated 21,000 samples, many of them undocumented, had been stored in large barrels at our collections facility for over three decades.

Large metal barrels on shelves.
The whale samples were sitting in over 130 large, sealed barrels and had never been made accessible to the scientific community until the salvage project began. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

The collection can provide invaluable information on topics ranging from historical records of whale occurrences and migration, impact of climate change on marine biodiversity, cetacean changes in growth and development, to historical records of pollution. And since it’s been almost 30 years since Canada joined the international moratorium on whale hunting in 1986, the value of these collections becomes even more significant.

With this mind, I was determined, after I joined the museum in December 2006, to add to the scientific knowledge by salvaging this amazing collection.

I readily acknowledged its exceptional value after I was made aware of its existence. It was the only collection of its kind in the world from the time period and the place the samples were collected. Vertebrate collections staff had worked to inventory the samples in 1993 and 1998 but several reasons impeded attempts to properly deal with the samples and make the data more accessible. The reasons included potential harm in handling large volumes of carcinogenetic preservative without appropriate equipment, incomplete data records (i.e., what was in each barrel), and limited resources.

A close-up of whale ovaries in a storage barrel.
A large barrel containing ovaries was opened in the lab for transfer to other containers. The samples were still in good condition despite being unchecked for a long time and having a dangerously low concentration of preservative. Image: Philippe Ste-Marie © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Arctic Biological Station, established in 1948, was originally part of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada and served to expand oceanographic investigations in the Eastern Arctic. Over 44 years, thousands of marine mammal specimens were collected from most of the Canadian Arctic. Over this time, the scientists took advantage of whaling activities to assemble collections for research. The samples donated to our museum were collected mostly in the 1960s and 1970s in the northern Atlantic and the Arctic.

I spent a few years pondering how to complete the documentation and access to the samples, striving to identify all the issues that could prevent me from completing what had been pending for over two decades. Over that time, I learned a lot about this collection, the people behind it, the ebbs and flows it went through, and the less-than-glorious fate that was reserved to it.

The final step in breaking new ground to manage this collection and make it more accessible led me in October 2012 to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. There I met James (Jim) Mead, a researcher who had worked at the Arctic Biological Station in the 1970s and had collected many of the samples. Jim willingly offered to share the data he kept in his field notes. Charles Potter, the manager of the Smithsonian’s marine mammal collections, also shared very exciting stories about this collection. With this information, and some funding now in place, I was ready to finally oversee the sorting, documentation and curation of the prized samples.

Two staff, wearing masks and protective gear, lean over steel tanks containing specimens.
Vertebrate zoology staff confirm inventories and transfer whale samples into easily manageable 25-gallon stainless steel tanks and 5-gallon jars with updated alcohol concentration. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature

Now that holding confirmed data was no longer an issue, the desired samples were to be transferred into smaller containers to be eventually made accessible to scientists. I was only hoping they still were in good condition in the barrels. They were! Selected skeletal and anatomical parts were eventually pulled together by the thousands.

So far, four major subsets of parts have been consolidated : 1) auditory system parts consisting of earplugs removed from 2,942 whales, and ear bones and ear blocks from 1,357 individuals; 2) an assemblage of foetuses representing various whale species and different development stages; 3) a series of anatomical organs comprising ovaries, brains, hearts, and eyes and 4) miscellaneous parts, including skin clips with scars, flippers and flukes.

A few whale foetuses resting in a stainless steel storage tank.
Among the stunning samples, a collection of foetuses was eventually assembled and organized in compliance with museum standards. Image: Philippe Ste-Marie © Canadian Museum of Nature

Many marine mammal species are represented in the collection, including seven whale species, as well as many seals and dolphins. The blue whale displayed in the museum’s RBC Blue Water gallery is also part of the collection that came from the Arctic Biological Station.

The job is not done yet. More work is needed to bring this unique collection to a world-class rank. More specimens still need to be pulled out of the barrels to be placed in appropriate containers and fluid preservatives, and the information associated with the specimens must be published in data portals.

Rows of shoeboxes on shelves containing whale eardrums.
A collection of whale earbones lie stored in boxes in the vertebrate collections, after being reorganized and having their data confirmed. Image: Kamal Khidas © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Much of the collection, nonetheless, can now be used for research, teaching, and education. It can be combined with other samples from not only the museum’s vertebrate collection but also the palaeontology section, where staff are processing approximately 1,000 other skeletal parts of whales (most representing bowhead whales that lived some 4,000-5,000 years ago in various parts of the Arctic.) Thus, the diversity of species and samples, as well as the scope of the time period that characterize the Canadian Museum of Nature’s whale collections, make them truly stunning.