The Aquarium estimates that there are only about 430 individuals of this species still around. In the past they were hunted nearly to extinction for their meat and oil. In fact, the name right whale comes from the fact that they were considered the right whale to hunt, due to their slow movements and the fact that they float after they’re killed. Fortunately, they are now protected from whaling worldwide. However, they still face a lot of danger from boat collisions and entanglement in fishing gear. Definitely check out our Right Whale Research Blog for more information on what the Aquarium is doing to protect these majestic animals.
Right whale researchers in the field.
Our particular skeleton is about 35 ft long, so it was most likely a juvenile whale. Adult Northern right whales can grow between 45 and 55 ft in total length, and weigh up to 70 tons. A fascinating feature of the skeleton is the structure of its pectoral flippers. Looking at them, you can see that whales actually have five digits, like us. I think it’s just a cool reminder that we’re more similar to other animals than we sometimes realize.
Notice the five digits of the North Atlantic right whale’s flipper.
As I mentioned earlier, this skeleton is not quite complete. One thing people don’t always realize is that whales’ ancestors lived on land. As competition intensified on land, some mammals adapted once again to the ocean to take advantage of unused food resources. Some marine mammals, like our fur seals and harbor seals, still have both front and hind legs, but whales don't. However, while whales don’t have any usable hind limbs, many do have tiny pelvic bones embedded in muscle. Bones or organs that are present but no longer seem to be of much, or any, use to an animal are known as vestigial (one of my favorite words!). An example in humans would be our wisdom teeth. With our right whale skeleton these vestigial pelvic bones are not present, but would be floating somewhere between the ribs and the tip of the tail.
In this diagram, the letter C indicates the vestigial hind limbs of a whale.
So next time you’re at the Aquarium, don’t forget to look up! There are more than just tanks to explore when you’re here.