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Birds and Mammals Research 

October 23, 2013

Orca O319: Swimming Again!

After we articulated the second flipper and the Built for Speed exhibit closed on September 29th, it was time to put Orca O319 on permanent display. He couldn’t stay hanging on that frame in the piazza forever! It was decided that he should be someplace where people could see him up close like they had been able to all summer and still learn about his story. A spot was chosen near the third floor walkway that connects the Forum Theater to the Naturalist Center.

First, we had to disassemble him to make him more transportable; the skull, flippers, and tail were removed (which they were designed to do). photo1 photo2

Our Exhibits team attached him to a frame for safe transportation.

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The Exhibits team and rigging crew reattached the skull and tail after the skeleton was moved out of the piazza.

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An electric winch is used to raise the skeleton to its permanent display rigging, after which the flippers were reattached.

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The transportation rigging was removed, leaving Orca O319 ready to make his debut near the third floor walkway. Come by and see him on permanent display!photo7

This project was a labor in love two years in the making: from reporting to a call of a dead Orca on the beach in Marin over Thanksgiving of 2011 to collecting his skeleton, cleaning off the flesh and grease, and reassembling him in the Summer of 2013, it has been an experience of a lifetime. Thank you to everyone who came by and talked with us while we worked in the piazza! We loved getting a chance to get what is usually a behind-the-scenes project out onto the public floor.

Whenever you visit a museum, don’t forget to look around and take notice of all the amazing specimens displayed in unusual places. Every single one has a unique story.

 

Laura Wilkinson
Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator
Ornithology and Mammalogy

 

All marine mammal stranding activities were conducted under authorization by the National Marine Fisheries Service through a Stranding Agreement issued to the California Academy of Sciences and MMPA/ESA Permit No. 932-1905/MA-009526.


Filed under: Orca Articulation — Laura Wilkinson @ 10:17 am

July 31, 2013

The Articulation of Orca O319: An Update

It’s been almost two months since we completed O319, but there is still one piece missing: the right flipper. I mentioned previously that O319 only has its left flipper completed while the bones from the right flipper continue to be cleaned. As I explained before, the humerus, radius, and ulna of the right flipper were originally cleaned in our dermestid beetle colony, while the left flipper was cleaned in maceration. The beetles caused the right flipper bones to retain much more grease than the left flipper.

To remove grease we generally submerge skeletons into a very dilute ammonia solution, which leaches the grease out of the bone. This can take days, months, or even more than a year depending on the amount of grease in the bone. Originally, when we realized how much greasier the bones from the right flipper were, we tried to remove some of that grease by boiling the bones in water with a bit of dish soap.

boil photo_1

After a couple of hours, we got a bit of grease to come out.

boil photo_2

However, it was obvious that this wasn’t going to be the most effective way to remove all of the grease, as it would likely have taken days of boiling to get the bones clean. Prolonged boiling can cause bone to disintegrate, which is definitely not what we wanted for our articulated skeleton. Knowing that soaking the bones in ammonia would also take longer than we wanted, we decided to drive the bones up to the retired Ornithology & Mammalogy specimen preparator’s house. She placed the bones in lacquer thinner, which also acts as a degreaser, and left them in the sun.

laquer thinner_1

Within an hour, there was already a noticeable change in the solution. Cloudiness shows that fat is successfully leaching from the bone.

laquer thinner_2

The bones are almost ready for us to bring back to CAS and assemble. Come by later in August and we will be finishing up the right flipper and attaching it to O319. We will finally have the completed skeleton!

 

Laura Wilkinson
Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator
Ornithology and Mammalogy

 

All marine mammal stranding activities were conducted under authorization by the National Marine Fisheries Service through a Stranding Agreement issued to the California Academy of Sciences and MMPA/ESA Permit No. 932-1905/MA-009526.


Filed under: Orca Articulation — Laura Wilkinson @ 1:52 pm

June 11, 2013

The Articulation of Orca O319: All of the Pieces Put Together!

On Sunday, June 9th, we finished our articulation (all except for the right flipper, which will be completed at a later date. Read more about that here). The  hyoids, scapulae, flipper, pelvic bones, and skull were all attached to complete O319’s skeleton. Over the last five weeks, we had 286 total pieces to assemble.

photo_hyoids

photo_scapula

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photo_pelvic

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The skeleton will be on display in the Built for Speed Orca Lab (where we assembled it) through September 29th, so you still have plenty of time to come see it up close. After the Built for Speed exhibit closes, O319 will have a permanent home hanging somewhere on the main floor (just like our Blue Whale and Gray Whale skeletons).

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It’s been a fun 5 weeks! Thanks to all who came by and asked some great questions!

 

Laura Wilkinson
Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator
Ornithology and Mammalogy

 

All marine mammal stranding activities were conducted under authorization by the National Marine Fisheries Service through a Stranding Agreement issued to the California Academy of Sciences and MMPA/ESA Permit No. 932-1905/MA-009526.

 


Filed under: Orca Articulation — Laura Wilkinson @ 10:24 am

June 5, 2013

The Articulation of Orca O319: The Ribs

Another time-intensive process has been matching up the ribs, getting them in the right order, and attaching them to the skeleton. Just like the vertebrae, it’s a bit overwhelming to pull all of the ribs out on a table and realize that they have to be matched and ordered, but it’s not so bad once you get the hang of it.

First, we matched ribs up by “kissing” the ends together; a pair of ribs should be the same length and shape, so when you place the top ends together, the bottoms should match, as well.

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Once matched, we ordered the ribs from front to back of the Orca. The first set of ribs is the smallest, moving progressively larger until about ¾ of the way back, when they start to get smaller again. The last sets of ribs then are distinguished by their single heads (rather than double), showing that they only connect to the vertebrae in one spot rather than two.

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After getting the ribs in the correct order, we had to figure out which ribs belonged on the left and right sides of the Orca based on the way that the bones curve. After everything was correctly matched and ordered, the ribs could be matched to the smaller sternal ribs that connect the main rib to the sternum. Holes were drilled in the ends of each bone to insert connective pins, which were then glued into place. These will anchor the ribs to the vertebrae. Eye bolts connect the ribs and sternal ribs together to allow for flexibility.

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Properly aligning all of the ribs on the sternum and vertebrae has been quite a process. Each rib has to be placed precisely or else the rib cage won’t come together into one smooth section. We’ve been using rope to hold the sternum in place while we move the ribs to their correct positions. A piece of cardboard helps to keep the ribs spaced and placed correctly before finally gluing the connective pins into place.

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Lastly, we’ll use epoxy clay and silicone to cover the connective rods.

We’re wrapping up on the articulation and will be finishing on Sunday, June 9th. Come by this week to see us put the finishing touches on our Orca!

 

Laura Wilkinson
Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator
Ornithology and Mammalogy

 

All marine mammal stranding activities were conducted under authorization by the National Marine Fisheries Service through a Stranding Agreement issued to the California Academy of Sciences and MMPA/ESA Permit No. 932-1905/MA-009526.


Filed under: Orca Articulation — Laura Wilkinson @ 2:05 pm

May 31, 2013

The Articulation of Orca O319: Casting the Teeth

Orca O319 recently received a new set of teeth made out of polyurethane!  Instead of remaining on display with the rest of the skeleton, the real set of teeth from O319 will be kept in the Ornithology and Mammalogy collection to be available for researchers.  Teeth of the offshore Orca ecotype are of special interest due to the wear that occurs from eating sharks with rough dermal denticles.  Although O319 was still a juvenile, his teeth were worn down almost to the gum line.  Researchers are not sure how this affects the long term eating habits of offshore Orcas so having the teeth accessible in our collection will aid in the California Academy of Sciences’ goals of exploring, explaining and sustaining life and increasing public education of these vital topics.  Every year the Academy has a fundraising event for these conservation and sustainability programs called the Big Bang Gala.  A few of our Big Bang Gala donors were able to participate in the Orca articulation process and mold and cast some of these teeth that will become part of our Orca skeleton.

Step one was to create a mold of the original set of teeth.  Each tooth was placed into a paper cup, held to the bottom of each cup with clay. Silicone was poured around each tooth and left to set overnight.

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After 24 hours the silicone had cured. The paper cups were cut away from the silicone molds and the clay holding each tooth was removed, exposing the base of the tooth.  A careful incision along the edge of the mold helped us to extract the tooth easily and we were left with a precise mold of each tooth.

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Next, polyurethane was poured into the mold and left to dry for 30 minutes. The casts were then removed from each mold.

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Slide1

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Orca O319 has 47 teeth, and each was numbered and labeled so researchers know where each tooth was located in the jaw.

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After a fun day of hard work from our dedicated volunteers, all of the teeth have been cast.  The bases to each tooth (the space in the mold where the clay held each tooth) was ground away so that the teeth will fit back into the skull correctly. We are currently painting the casts with oil paints to resemble the real teeth.

moe_painting teeth

Once we’re done painting, the teeth will be glued into the Orca skull to complete our skeleton!

 

Codie Otte
Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator
Ornithology and Mammalogy

 

All marine mammal stranding activities were conducted under authorization by the National Marine Fisheries Service through a Stranding Agreement issued to the California Academy of Sciences and MMPA/ESA Permit No. 932-1905/MA-009526.


Filed under: Orca Articulation — Laura Wilkinson @ 11:20 am

May 28, 2013

The Articulation of Orca O319: Flipper Assembly

One of the more time-intensive parts of the articulation process is assembling the flippers. From the outside, flippers look like they might be made up of cartilage, like the dorsal fin. However, there are many small bones within the flipper that correspond to the arm and hand bones that you would find in a human. We took a CT scan of O319’s flipper before we started cleaning the bones to make its articulation easier on us.

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As you can see, the bones in the flipper actually look a lot like a hand. I’ve labeled the bones to make the comparison to human bones easier. In between each of the carpals, metacarpals, and phalanx bones is a padding of cartilage, which will be reconstructed using silicone. The rest of the flipper is made of dense, fibrous connective tissue.

Without this CT scan it would be difficult for us to correctly orient all of these small bones. We were able to print a life-size version of the scan so that we could accurately determine which bone was placed where, as well as figure out where rods would be drilled through each bone.

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The first bones we connected were the humerus, radius, and ulna.

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From there, we bent rods to fit with the desired shape of each “finger” and drilled holes in the carpals, metacarpals, and phalanges to correspond with the rod placement. Thicker rods were used to support the carpals and metacarpals to the radius and ulna, while thinner rods connected the metacarpals to the phalanx bones. Each bone was glued onto the rod using epoxy and then the rods were anchored into the radius and ulna with epoxy.

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We then started layering on silicone to act as the cartilage, just like we did between the vertebrae.

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We will only be completing the left flipper in its entirety at this point in the project. The humerus, radius, and ulna of the right flipper are still going through the degreasing process (we put the right flipper into our dermestid beetle colony and the left flipper in maceration – the beetles made the right bones retain a lot more grease than maceration did. Read about our beetle colony and maceration process in past blogs). We were able to put the right carpals, metacarpals, and phalanges onto their rods and begin adding silicone. A few of us will finish articulating the right flipper whenever it’s done degreasing.

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Note the bottle of bubbles in the background (next to the left flipper). We use those to keep our fingers lubricated while smoothing layers of silicone. If we didn’t, our fingers would constantly stick and we would never get a smooth finish to the silicone.

 

Come see us in action Tuesdays through Sundays in the Piazza!

 

Laura Wilkinson
Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator
Ornithology and Mammalogy

 

All marine mammal stranding activities were conducted under authorization by the National Marine Fisheries Service through a Stranding Agreement issued to the California Academy of Sciences and MMPA/ESA Permit No. 932-1905/MA-009526.


Filed under: Orca Articulation — Laura Wilkinson @ 2:51 pm

May 22, 2013

The Articulation of Orca O319: Working on the Backbone

One of the first parts of the Orca that we’ve been working on is the backbone. In a previous post, I showed our volunteers putting all of the vertebrae in order and gluing the vertebral epiphyses on. Now, we’ve moved on to actually drilling holes in each vertebra so that they can fit over a rod that we bent to form the curve of the backbone.

Photo1_drilling

Photo2_vertebrae

All vertebrae have cartilage that forms between them to act as padding between the bones. To mimic this cartilage we will be using silicone, but first need to create spacers to place in between each vertebra. We are using blocks of polyethylene foam that our exhibits crew cut into specific thicknesses (thinner between the thoracic vertebrae and thicker between the lumbar). Once those were cut, we used a hole saw to drill a hole in the foam to match the size of hole in the vertebrae that the rod will go through.

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The foam squares were then measured and cut to fit 2 centimeters away from the outer edge of each individual vertebra. This 2 centimeter buffer will allow us to layer the silicone “cartilage” over the foam out to the edge of the vertebra without the foam being visible.

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When placed together, we now have custom-shaped spacers between each of the vertebrae.

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The backbone is looking great! Come see it for yourself in the Piazza.

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Laura Wilkinson
Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator
Ornithology and Mammalogy

 

All marine mammal stranding activities were conducted under authorization by the National Marine Fisheries Service through a Stranding Agreement issued to the California Academy of Sciences and MMPA/ESA Permit No. 932-1905/MA-009526.


Filed under: Orca Articulation — Laura Wilkinson @ 10:53 am

May 17, 2013

The Articulation of Orca O319: Questions from our Visitors

We’ve been getting some great questions from our visitors about Orca O319 and Orcas in general. Here is a sampling of the questions we’ve gotten, along with our answers:

What does “Orca” mean?

The scientific name of Orcas is Orcinus orca: “Orcinus” means “kingdom of the dead” or “belonging to Orcus” (a Roman god of the underworld), and “orca” was the name that ancient Romans gave these animals, possibly borrowing it from a similar greek word which referred to a whale species.

How big is the Orca’s brain?

Roughly four times larger than a human’s brain.

How much did the Orca weigh?

The skull alone (bones only, no flesh) weighs 72 lbs, closer to 85 lbs with the mandibles (lower jaws). We don’t have an exact weight for our Orca before we began the necropsy, but adult Orcas can weigh between 5,700 and 16,000 lbs. At birth, Orcas weigh 350-500 lbs. O319 was not a fully grown adult, so he probably weighed on the low end of average adult weights.

Have there been any bleaching agents applied to the bones?

The bones all soaked in dilute sodium perborate, which is a powder that release hydrogen peroxide when mixed with water. The skull was placed on the roof of the Academy for one month to allow the sun to naturally bleach it. Being in the Piazza will likely bleach the bones further, as they’re exposed to ultraviolet light. We don’t use actual bleach, as it degrades the bones.

Photo1_skull

How long will it take to put the skeleton together?

We will be articulating the skeleton from May 8th through June 9th (1 month). After that, staff members from Ornithology and Mammalogy will work on finishing touches. The entire skeleton should be done by the end of June.

Does the Orca have a name? Will we name it?

Our Orca is referenced as O319, its scientific identification number. We will not give it a personal name because it is a research specimen. It will always be O319.

Are Orcas seen specifically in this area?

There is currently a pod of transient Orcas in Monterey Bay, seen hunting different species of marine mammals (sea lions, elephant seals, harbor seals, dolphins, porpoises, and gray whale calves). A pod of Orcas has also been seen in the Gulf of the Farallones in the past.

What will we be using as “cartilage” on the skeleton?

We will be using silicone.

How do we attach the bones together?

We will be using a variety of metal rods, glues, and wires to articulate the skeleton.

 

If you have a question about the articulation process or about Orca O319, leave a comment or come visit us at the Orca Lab Tuesdays through Sundays!

 

Laura Wilkinson
Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator
Ornithology and Mammalogy

 

All marine mammal stranding activities were conducted under authorization by the National Marine Fisheries Service through a Stranding Agreement issued to the California Academy of Sciences and MMPA/ESA Permit No. 932-1905/MA-009526.


Filed under: Orca Articulation — Laura Wilkinson @ 3:22 pm

May 13, 2013

The Articulation of Orca O319: The Project Begins

Now that I’ve told O319’s story, it’s time to get to the fun part – the articulation!

Photo1_Andrea_Lee1

We started on Wednesday, May 8th by sorting through the vertebrae and grouping them by type from head to tail: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and caudal. Once sorted, they were then ordered based on size measurements taken of each vertebrae.

Photo2_unsorted_vertebrae

Since O319 was still a young animal (by orca standards), the vertebral epiphyses had not yet fused to the vertebrae. This means that each vertebra had two separated plates (which Lee Post refers to as “cookies”) that needed to be matched up. We had a fun task of sorting through the epiphyses and matching each up to the correct end of each vertebra. Each epiphysis can only fit correctly in one orientation on one specific side of a vertebra, so once you get a match it “clicks” into place. We then glued the epiphyses on to the vertebrae, secured them with rubber bands, and let them dry overnight.

Photo3_Peter_Epiphysis

 Photo4_lumbar_epiphyses

 Next, we did some fine-tuning of each bone, cleaning off any remaining sand and small bits of dried-on grease.

Photo5_Dianna_Sue

 After all the vertebrae were successfully numbered, matched with their epiphyses, and cleaned, we pulled all of the rib bones out with the goal of matching each pair together, distinguishing which ribs went on the  left and right sides of the Orca, and putting them in order from head to tail. It was surprisingly easier than it sounded. Potential pairs of ribs were pushed together with the curved ends facing each other. If the ends “kissed,” it meant that the ribs were both the same size and should therefore be a matched pair.

Photo6_Phil_John_ribs

 It’s been really fun working on this project on the main floor. Having a chance to chat with the public and explain a process that they’ve likely never seen before, as well as teach them about Orcas, has been a wonderful experience for not only our staff and volunteers, but also our visitors. We all cycle through shifts of working on the bones and talking with the public, so everyone that you chat with should have a lot of information about the articulation process.

Photo7_Tucker

 Come by the Orca Lab Tuesdays through Sundays, chat with our staff and volunteers, and see what we’re up to next! If you have any questions about the project, leave a comment here and we’ll be sure to respond.

 

Laura Wilkinson
Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator
Ornithology and Mammalogy

 

All marine mammal stranding activities were conducted under authorization by the National Marine Fisheries Service through a Stranding Agreement issued to the California Academy of Sciences and MMPA/ESA Permit No. 932-1905/MA-009526.

 


Filed under: Orca Articulation — Laura Wilkinson @ 3:35 pm

May 11, 2013

The Story of O319: Part 3, Collecting and Cleaning the Skeleton

Continuing on from my last post, Moe made the decision to collect the entire skeleton of offshore Orca 0319, since it was such a rare specimen. This, however, was no easy feat! The beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore where the Orca washed up was a 45 minute hike from our truck, including a trek down a steep hill towards the beach and a climb over a rocky outcrop. So, bringing bones (with some muscle and fat still attached) back over the rocks, up the hill, and along the trail to the truck took a lot of work.

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Over a period of 4 days, we were able to get all of the bones back to our lab here at CAS, using some creative methods such as strapping the head of the Orca onto a stretcher and pulling it up the hill.

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Even though all of the pieces were brought back from the beach, there was still a lot of work to be done. On the Project Lab blog, I’ve talked about a process called maceration that we use to clean a lot of our skeletons (you can read that here). We have a special large tank for macerating oversized skeletons, which is the tank that we used for the Orca. First, we had to get as much of the remaining tissue off of the bones as possible.

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The skeleton was then placed in the maceration tank, where bacteria naturally cleans the bones over time.

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Once all tissue was completely macerated off, the bones were soaked in dish soap and dilute ammonia to remove grease. We got them as grease-free as possible before articulation, so that grease would not leak out to the surface of the bones over time.

photo6

Next post, I’ll start documenting the actual articulation process, where you can see Lee Post, our staff, and 40 dedicated volunteers put O319 back together!

 

Laura Wilkinson
Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator
Ornithology and Mammalogy

 

All marine mammal stranding activities were conducted under authorization by the National Marine Fisheries Service through a Stranding Agreement issued to the California Academy of Sciences and MMPA/ESA Permit No. 932-1905/MA-009526.

 


Filed under: Orca Articulation — Laura Wilkinson @ 10:00 am
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