97 year old fin whale vertebrae uncovered in Devon sand dunes

The Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) was recently called out to the stranding of a harbour porpoise, Phocoena phocoena, in Westward Ho! in north Devon. The porpoise was a suitable candidate to collect for post-mortem, and so plans were made for the strandings team to travel to pick it up.

As part of the trip to Westward Ho!, a ranger from Northam Burrows Country Park asked if the Museum was able to provide an identification on three whale vertebrae they had, to allow them to display the bones in their visitors centre. Little did anyone know the full story behind the vertebrae was about to be uncovered!

Three whale vertebrae found in the sand dunes at Westward Ho! (Credit: Holly Collingham, Torridge District Council)

The first place to start identifying the vertebrae was to gather photographs and measurements. In many cases, confidently identifying skeletal remains of cetaceans to species level is difficult unless the skull or teeth are available. In this case, there were only three vertebrae available for identification. The vertebrae however, were very large, measuring 87 cm across. This ruled out smaller cetacean species such as porpoises and dolphins, and suggested the vertebrae belonged to a large whale, or mysticete.

The bones had been exposed in the sand dunes on Westward Ho! beach during recent winter storms, leading the team to believe they had been buried there for some time. Rangers from the Country Park also passed on historical records of a large whale stranding on the beach, but were unsure if the vertebrae belonged to this animal. The Museum was provided with an archival photograph of the stranded whale and a newspaper cutting of an article describing the stranding, though unfortunately it did not contain a date.

Westward Ho whale newspaper article
Newspaper article from 1942 describing the whale stranding in Westward Ho! (Credit: Peter Christie, Bideford Gazette)

The Museum’s historic stranding records in the North Devon area were checked and found only one stranding of a large mysticete – a 19.5 metre fin whale, Balaenoptera physalus, which stranded in Westward Ho! in 1921. The records contained measurements of the animal which matched the measurements within the newspaper cutting. This meant we could be sure that the photograph and article related to a stranding of a fin whale on Westward Ho! beach in 1921. The big question left to answer was did the recently uncovered vertebrae therefore belong to the 1921 stranded fin whale?

Westward Ho fin whale
Stranded whale on the beach at Westward Ho! in 1921 (Credit: North Devon Maritime Museum, Appledore)

Delving deeper into the archives revealed several letters back and fourth between Sir Sidney Harmer, Keeper of Zoology at the Museum between 1909 – 1921, and HM Coastguard based in Devon discussing the stranding of this fin whale. Harmer, who was responsible for documenting strandings at the time, wrote to the Coastguard asking for a sample of ‘whalebone’ to be sent to the Museum to allow the species to be identified.

Historically, ‘whalebone’ referred to the baleen plates present in the mouths of large whales, in place of teeth, which can be used to identify a species based on colour. There appeared to be some confusion about the sample of ‘whalebone’ requested, as on arrival at the Museum, Harmer realised he had been sent two pieces of rib from the whale and not baleen, as desired.

255 minke baleen
Baleen plates seen clearly in the upper jaw of a minke whale. Historically, baleen was called ‘whalebone’ (Credit: Corinne Gordon, BDMLR).

Harmer informed the Coastguard of the misunderstanding and requested they send an actual sample of baleen to the Museum, having described what he was really after. The Coastguard responded, saying that it was impossible for them to obtain baleen as most of it had washed away, and anyway the carcass had been “cut up and buried” below the cliffs on the beach. This provided us with more evidence to suggest the vertebrae belonged to the stranded fin whale of 1921. As the animal was buried as means of disposal, the vertebrae would have remained intact and were only uncovered when recent storms moved the sand to reveal them.

Finally, the last piece of the puzzle was to have the Museum’s Principal Curator of Mammals, Richard Sabin, have a look at the vertebrae and confirm they belonged to a fin whale. Richard was provided with measurements and photographs of the vertebrae, alongside all the archival material to allow him to make an identification. He came to the conclusion that given the dimensions of the vertebrae, it was very likely they were fin whale and belonged to the stranded animal of 1921. This was a fantastic result to complete the story of the vertebrae for the Rangers at Northam Burrows Country Park.

It is rare that uncovered bones are linked back to an exact animal so this story is a real success for the Strandings team. The vertebrae will be on display at Northam Burrows Visitor Centre. If you come across any bones and would like help in identification, you can contact the Museum here.

Kate Swindells is a research assistant at NHM, a partner organisation of the CSIP. She completed her Masters degree in Global Wildlife Health & Conservation at the University of Bristol and also has an undergraduate degree in Marine Biology. She joined the museum in January 2018. 


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