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Birds and Mammals Research 

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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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

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 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.

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 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.

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 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.

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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

May 9, 2013

The Story of 0319: Part 2, Orca Ecotypes and Identifying Our Orca

In the previous blog post, I wrote about our initial observation and field necropsy of Orca 0319 back in November of 2011. Now, I’ll go over the different types of Orcas, called “ecotypes.”

There are currently 10 forms (“ecotypes”) of Orca recognized. They are all considered to be the same species (Orcinus orca) until proved otherwise by genetic research. In the Eastern North Pacific Ocean, three of these ecotypes occur: resident, transient, and offshore. The three ecotypes look slightly different (distinguishable by their saddle patch and dorsal fin), have different vocalizations, behave differently, and eat different foods.  

Check out this poster from Southwest Fisheries Science Center for a great illustration of the different ecotypes.

Resident

The best‐known form that lives off the coast of Washington and Oregon. The Southern Resident population is protected under the Endangered Species Act. Their saddle patch often has a large black intrusion (‘open’ saddle) not found in other Orcas. Females’ dorsal fins are rounded on top with a pointed trailing edge. They specialize in eating fish, typically salmon.

Transient

A large form that lives in coastal and offshore waters of the North Pacific. Their saddle patch is ‘closed’ compared to the Resident forms’ and extends forward past the midline of the dorsal fin. Females’ dorsal fins are generally pointed. They eat mammals such as harbor seals and minke whales.

Offshore

A smaller form that is rarely observed because it occurs mainly over the outer continental shelf of the eastern North Pacific. Some travel between Alaska and Southern California. Their saddle patch is fainter than those of resident and transient forms. Females’ dorsal fins are rounded at the tip and often have nicks. In 2011, using genetic samples from prey remains, researchers determined that their primary diet consists of sharks (Pacific sleeper sharks in that case). The fact that sharks have rough skin explains why offshore Orca teeth are often worn to the gumline.

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On Tuesday November 29th, we emailed photos of our Orca to various Orca researchers for possible photo identification. Later that day, Graeme Ellis, research technician at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, identified the Orca as O319, an offshore animal. O319 was originally sighted in 2002 as a juvenile and had most recently been recorded off the west coast of Vancouver Island in September 2011. Based on the photos, size, and lack of secondary sexual characteristics (curled flukes, large dorsal fin) Graeme Ellis estimated that O319 was approximately 15 years old at the time of death – still not a full adult.

Offshore orcas are a rare ecotype to find washed up on the beach, as they typically sink into the ocean after they die. This fact made Moe decide to collect the entire skeleton so that we could have as much research material as possible available for this animal.

Stay tuned to find out how we collected and cleaned the orca skeleton, leading up to the beginning of our articulation project. We’ve already begun articulating, so be sure to come by the Orca lab in the Piazza (Tuesday through Sunday) to see us in action!

 

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 @ 10:54 am

May 6, 2013

The story of Orca O319: Part 1, Initial Observation

We have a very exciting project starting this week (May 10th) in the Piazza: an articulation of an orca skeleton. Articulation, or connecting the bones together, is how we display skeletons so that we can see what an animal looks like without all of its other parts (muscle, skin, etc.). It is a process that’s usually done behind the scenes, but we decided it would be a great opportunity for the public to learn about an interesting specimen as well as a unique preparation process. First of all, how did we get this orca skeleton?

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In November of 2011, the day after Thanksgiving, we received a call that there was an orca that washed up dead on a beach in Point Reyes National Seashore (Marin County). Moe Flannery, the Collections Manager of Ornithology & Mammalogy (birds and mammals), who coordinates our marine mammal stranding response between Bodega Bay and Año Nuevo State Park, got a team together to go take photographs, measurements, and skin, muscle, and blubber samples that are required for each dead marine mammal stranding.

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A team returned the next day to perform a field necropsy, which is an autopsy performed on an animal. There was only time to complete the necropsy and remove the skull, which was then moved up the beach towards the base of the cliffs, to make sure it didn’t wash away with the tide overnight. We keep a part of all specimens (marine mammals, birds, and land mammals), called a “voucher,” for our research collection. In some cases that means the entire skin and skeleton, while in other cases it may only be a wing or skull. Moe knew that she at least wanted to keep the skull of the Orca, which is why it was secured in a safe place overnight.

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Stay tuned to read about how we found out about the Orca’s identification number and how we came to the decision to keep the entire 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 @ 11:25 am

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