May 26, 2019
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With the help of insects, this Hancock County man is preserving the skeleton of a famous whale

Bill Trotter | BDN
Bill Trotter | BDN
Courtney Vashro, left, loads ribs from the humpback whale Vector into the bucket of a tractor while Dan DenDanto waits to transfer them into a compost pile. DenDanto plans to bury the bones for several months to clean off soft tissues and then to reassemble them into a skeleton so they can be put only display, possibly at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.

The skeleton of a well-known humpback whale whose corpse washed ashore on Cape Cod earlier this month will be preserved by a Mount Desert Island man who plans to clean and reassemble her bones.

And if it is granted permission from federal officials, the Maine State Museum hopes to add Vector’s skeleton to its collection and display it inside the Augusta museum.

“We’d very much like to have it,” Bernard Fishman, the museum director, said Monday. “It would fit quite well with the collection.”

But first, Dan DenDanto of Tremont has to get Vector’s bones ready for reassembly — or rearticulation, as the process of rebuilding a skeleton is called.

He is one of the few people around who is well experienced in this line of work, which is time-consuming and not for the faint-hearted. DenDanto, a graduate of College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor and a research associate with Allied Whale, the college’s marine mammal research entity, is specially licensed to perform such work by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Federal law prohibits anyone without a license from coming into close contact with or possessing parts of whales or other marine mammals such as seals or dolphins.

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Vector was a 45-foot-long female humpback whale who was first spotted by whale researchers in 1984, and is believed to have given birth to five calves during her lifetime. Lindsey Jones, marine stranding coordinator for Allied Whale, said Monday that Vector was an adult when she was first identified, so researchers think she could have been 40 years old when she died. Her body washed up on Cape Cod on May 6.

Humpbacks generally live about 50 years, according to the Associated Press. DenDanto said that sometimes researchers can determine a humpback whale’s age from a wax plug in its ear, — which displays one ring for each year it has been alive, similar to a tree — “if you can get it quick enough.”

The wax decomposes quickly upon death, however, and so often is unavailable for determining how old a whale was when it died. This was the case with Vector, whose body was seen floating at sea two days before she washed ashore.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare conducted a necropsy on the whale and is still waiting on test results to see if a cause of death for Vector can be determined. Jones, who with other Allied Whale staff and College of the Atlantic students participated in the necropsy in Massachusetts, said the corpse showed no obvious visible signs as to what may have killed Vector.

This past weekend, after assisting in the necropsy and then getting federal approval to preserve Vector’s skeleton, DenDanto drove three trailer loads — making three separate trips — of the whale’s dissected body from Cape Cod to a private site on MDI that he uses to compost dead marine mammals.

On Monday, he used a tractor and a backhoe to lift large, bony sections of the whale off the trailer and arrange them in a pile that he will cover with wood chips so Mother Nature — or, more specifically, flies and other flesh-eating bugs — can clean Vector’s bones. A persistent, cool breeze helped whisk away the stench of decay as the bones were arranged in a pile.

The bones will be buried for several months to let the bugs and natural decomposition remove the soft tissues from Vector’s ribs, vertebrae, skull and other massive bones.

Sometime next winter, DenDanto said, he will move the bones into a pile of new, clean wood chips to help leach the natural oils from the bones.

Then, if all goes well, he will excavate the bones and start re-assembling Vector’s skeleton in the summer of 2020. Part of the timing will depend on how hot it is in Maine this summer, he said. The hotter it is, the quicker composting goes and the dryer the bones will be.

“Typically, I let them compost for two years,” he said.

Fishman, the state museum director, said that the museum would like to expand, as it has run out of room to continue adding large items to its collection, but that it likely would be able to find room to display Vector’s skeleton in Augusta, if it gets permission from NOAA to acquire it. Raising money to pay the expense of acquiring and then mounting the skeleton would be another challenge to solve, even if it gets federal approval for the acquisition.

“It will not be a quick process,” Fishman said of getting the skeleton ready and of getting the necessary approvals and funding. “We’re talking about a couple of years.”

Related: Researchers dissect humpback whale on Bar Harbor beach

 



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