Saturday, January 22, 2022

A Gray Whale Skeleton: Stories With Stories

What happened was just this:  I got hooked on the story.

For the first time in my life, I became actively interested in a book.  Me the sports fanatic, me the game freak, me the only ten-year-old in Illinois with a hate on for the alphabet wanted to know what happened next.

William Goldman, The Princess Bride:  S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, edition copyrighted 2003, p. 9.

For the most part, the stories we tell are expected to have a beginning, middle, and end.  We move through them (at least at first reading or telling) wanting to know what happened next.  An end may be reached because problems or situations are resolved.  At that juncture, there is no next.  But quite clearly that’s not sufficient for many of us, witness the endless stream of sequels in multi-volume novels or movies.  Then there is that interest, perhaps demand is better, for prequels.  We want to know what happened before.  All of which leaves me wondering where one story begins or ends, and another story begins or ends.  Are we in the midst of stories with stories?  I think these observation aren’t just restricted to fictional stories.  This post is about a true story with stories.

In late 2021, the most complete gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) skeleton ever found was transported from the collections of the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Department of Biology and Marine Biology to those of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.  In a multi-day process, experts from the Museum and the University worked on preparing the 42 bones of this juvenile specimen (including the skull, jaws, and vertebrae) for the trip (bubble wrap figured prominently in the effort).  The bones were carefully packed into a van and then (as carefully) driven up the East Coast to the Museum Support Center in Maryland.  Transferring the bones into the Support Center’s whale warehouse was another major undertaking.  (Unless otherwise noted, information presented in this post comes from the first two sources cited in the reference list at the end of this post.)

Pictures of the skeleton by UNCW’s Jeff Jankowski are included here with the generous permission of UNCW.  The first shows Dr. David Webster, Associate Dean of College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), with key elements of the skeleton.  The second of preparation for the move shows Dr. Webster (far right), Bill Crews (Facilities Coordinator CAS, center background), with Museum specialists David Bohaska (left) and Peter Kroehler (center right).

While the unique completeness of the skeleton is an important scientific draw for this specimen, that it is the skeleton of a gray whale is another critical attribute.  This skeleton is estimated to be roughly 1,000 years old, while the gray whale population that inhabited the Atlantic has been extinct for at least some 300 years with gray whales confined today to the North Pacific Ocean (reference #3, p. 502).  (Their range may be expanding and some may be entering the Atlantic once more.)  This skeleton may offer insights into the environment within which this individual lived in the Atlantic.  As Dr. Nicholas Pyenson, Curator of Fossil Marine Mammals at the Natural History Museum, said of this skeleton, “Specimens like these, tie to place and time.  They tell us how the world once was.” (reference #2)

This quick story of the move of a juvenile gray whale skeleton from a university campus in North Carolina to Smithsonian facilities in Maryland begs for some clarification.  A brief comment on what happens next:  the skeleton apparently will not go on display but will be stored by the Natural History Museum and made available for scientific research in the future.

More to the point and of more interest:  what happened before?  Here the stories (the prequel stories) become more complicated and somewhat fuzzy.

UNCW held the skeleton’s bones in its collections for perhaps three decades.  Apparently, for much of that time it was unclear what species of whale was represented here.  There were some humpback whale bones in the mix of bones but those turned out to be “red herrings.”  The skeleton was ultimately identified as coming from the extinct Atlantic gray whale, an identification later confirmed by Nicholas Pyenson of the National Museum of Natural History.  That identification prompted the negotiations that led to the donation by UNCW of the skeleton.

What happened before that?  How did UNCW come to hold this skeleton in the first place?  David Webster, UNCW dean, recounted that local residents Rita and Tom McCabe approached the university to see if it would be interested in the donation of some whale bones that were, at the time, being stored in the McCabe’s garage.  When the university accepted the donation, a transfer occurred, one markedly different from the one last year when the bones traveled to the Smithsonian.  As Webster recalls, “They [the McCabes] drove a small Chevy S10 pickup truck to campus, and they had bones hanging out all over the place.”  (Reference #1). 

And what happened before that?  Now things get very interesting and decidedly vague.  The news articles that appeared in the last couple of months about this gray whale skeleton donation are actually the reason this story or stories have proven irresistible to me.  The articles are singularly vague about how these bones came to light so they could be socked away in the McCabe garage.  Here’s how the UNCW news article described that process:

When Rita and Tom McCabe started collecting shells, fossils, and treasures like megalodon teeth during leisurely walks along the shorelines of West Onslow Beach [North Carolina] in the 1970s, they gradually found a variety of larger bones that they kept stored in their garage for years.  (Reference #1)

News pieces like this may be recounting what there is known to tell, but a description like this triggers a curious response in a fossil collector, well, this one, at least.  “Leisurely” beachcombing over some period of time seems highly unlikely to enable someone to build a collection of 42 bones from a single whale skeleton (including articulated vertebrae, no less).  Consider the size and weight of the bones depicted in the photographs above, as well as the number of people involved in packing and transporting the bones from the university to the museum.  Does one “gradually find” bones of this magnitude and in these numbers on a beach and carry them easily home?

The storyline at this point might do with an alternative narrative, one that salutes the McCabes’ foresight and dedication, but adjusts the account of what they did.  It seems more likely to me that the discovery and collecting of these bones happened in some sustained fashion and involved a substantial amount of time and energy on the part of the McCabes and anyone else who may have helped in the recovery from the beach.  This version of the story finds some support from the fact that Rita McCabe, and apparently to a lesser extent, Tom McCabe were devoted fossil hunters.  They led collecting trips to West Onslow Beach for the North Carolina Fossil Club.  (Reference #5)  A loving portrait of Rita McCabe on her death written by a son recounted that she was known as “Mrs. Onslow Beach.”  She started by collecting shells but was drawn to the fossils.  “Within years she would harvest every bit of information about the tens of thousands of fossils she would find on Onslow Beach.”  (Reference #6)

And what about even before that?  How did the skeleton come to be somewhere on the West Onslow Beach?  As noted, the skeleton is an estimated 1,000 years old.  Its history from its death to the discovery of its skeleton is unknowable in nearly all respects.  But given that this is the skeleton of a juvenile gray whale and the condition of some of its bones, a few things are likely.  Extant gray whales undertake long distance migrations from southern breeding grounds to northern feeding grounds.  Appropriately, the skeleton’s trip from North Carolina to Maryland probably paralleled a part of the marine migrations that the juvenile might have made a couple of times with other gray whales from breeding grounds perhaps as far south as the waters off Jupiter Island, Florida, to feeding grounds as far north as the depths off Southampton, New York.  (reference #3, p. 507)  Thus, it is possible this whale died during a migration along the East Coast.  Further, it is conceivable that, after its body washed ashore, it was butchered by local Native Americans.  Cut marks on some of the bones suggest that chapter of the story.

Onslow Beach deserves a chapter in this story or story of its own.  The beach is part of the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune.  Tom McCabe was a Marine, so there’s that connection.  As for the geological and paleontological aspects of the beach and its myriad fossils, I came across an article about fossil collecting on the beach that ran in the Camp Lejeune newspaper The Globe on November 2, 2006 (reference #7).  Relying on observations by North Carolina Fossil Club members, the article posits that that the beach’s fossils come from areas that were near-shore in the early part of the Miocene, as well as from inland sediments of younger ages, hence the wide range in ages of the fossils found here.  Of particular interest for this post, the article begins:

Fifty years ago, Rita McCabe didn’t even know what a sand-dollar looked like.  Today, the Jacksonville [North Carolina] resident is the owner of a considerable fossil collection which includes mastodon teeth, mammoth molars, whale vertebrae and shark’s teeth of every imaginable size. . . .  The Smithsonian Institute [sic] has taken an interest in her collection and sent representative to look at her specimens, which she keeps carefully tucked away in her home.

Yes, happily, there are stories with stories.


1) Krissy Vick, UNCW Department of Biology and Marine Biology Gifts Extinct Gray Whale Specimen to Smithsonian, UNCW News, December 21, 2021.

2) Alia N. Payne, A Gray Whale Makes its Way to the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Ocean, December 2021.

3) Scott E. Noakes, et al., Late Pleistocene Gray Whales (Eschrichtius robustus) Offshore Georgia, U.S.A., and the Antiquity of Gray Whale Migration in the North Atlantic Ocean, Paleogeography, Paleoclimatology, Palaeoecology, Volume 392, 2013.

4) Elly Cosgrove, From UNCW to the Smithsonian:  The Decade-Long Journey of Extinct Gray Whale Bones, WECT News, January 17, 2022.  There is an excellent video associated with this news story.

5) North Carolina Fossil Club, Janus, Number 1, 1994, p. 2.

6) North Carolina Fossil Club, Janus, Number 1, 2014, p. 2.

7) Amy Segreti, Going to the Beach?  Bring a Bag to Carry the Ice Age Mammal Fossils, The Globe, November 2, 2006.

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