Nantucket Whale Skeleton Mystery Draws Smithsonian To The Island

Jason Graziadei •

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The 47-foot whale skeleton that hangs in Nantucket High School may have been holding an unknown mystery for decades, one that may soon be unlocked.

Researchers from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC traveled to Nantucket today to drill holes into the specimen - believed to be a juvenile finback whale that washed up on Nantucket in October 1967 - and collect DNA samples from its bones.

The hunch?

Charley Potter, a resident research associate at the Smithsonian’s Department of Vertebrate Zoology, believes the whale might actually be one of the new species rorqual whales, or potentially a unique hybrid resulting from the mating of a blue whale and a finback whale. These species and the hybrids are relatively new discoveries by marine mammal experts thanks to advances in genetic testing and research.

Potter’s former associate, the late William (Bill) Schevill, a leading marine mammal scientist who worked at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, was one of the experts who responded to the island when the Nantucket High School whale came ashore on Dionis Beach back in the 1960s. When Schevill cataloged the whale, he declined to name its species. When Potter asked his friend about this omission, Schevill would only say the whale was “finback-like." He wouldn't commit to a specific species.

“Bill Schevill was one of the preeminent marine mammal scientists of his time,” Potter said in an e-mail to Nantucket High School. “If anyone would know what kind of whale it was, it would be Schevill."

Decades later, the Nantucket whale and Schevill’s reluctance to identify its species was still stuck in the back of Potter’s mind. And now he has the tools to settle the matter once and for all.

"Over the years, we wondered what exact kind of whale this is," he told the Current on Saturday. "While this is probably a finback, we want to use genetic analysis to determine exactly whether it's a fin whale or one of the new species like an Omura's whale or Rice's whale. Since Schevill's time, now with these genetic tools, we'll be much better to definitively describe what kind of whale this."

The DNA testing will take an unknown amount of time before results will be shared with the island, Potter said.

The whale skeleton, which is actually owned by the Nantucket Historical Association, is on permanent loan to the high school from the non-profit. The skeleton spent 32 years in the NHA's Whaling Museum before being moved to Nantucket High School at the end of 2003.

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