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Whale exhibition coming to London’s Natural History Museum -

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Robyn Williams: And this is The Science Show on RN where we stay in the water to meet the biggest beast of all, the blue whale. Two museums are now preparing major exhibitions on the evolution of whales; the Museum of Victoria in Melbourne, and the Natural History Museum in London. This is Richard Sabin, principal curator of vertebrates in London.

What is in front of us here on your desk, Richard?

Richard Sabin: Actually what you're looking at now is a plate, a single plate of baleen from a blue whale, the animal in fact that is going to be re-displayed in our Hintze Hall in 2017. It's one of the plates from this animal that came over to us in 1892, a year after the animal died. And it has a series of notches that run along its length and they represent areas where samples have been taken to analyse the stable isotopes present in that baleen, so it gives us some information about the diet and other factors about the environment that the animal was living in.

Robyn Williams: Filter feeders of course?

Richard Sabin: Filter feeders of course, yes. The plates of baleen are individual plates made from keratin, a protein that is exactly the same as our hair and fingernails, and it's what the animals used to filter out the krill from the water they take in.

Robyn Williams: Did you say 1892?

Richard Sabin: It was back in 1891 that this blue whale actually beached itself and died at the entrance to Wexford Harbour in the Irish Republic, and a year later the stripped and cleaned skeleton had been purchased and delivered to the Natural History Museum. It says 'Kensington', which had only been open for 10 years at that point.

Robyn Williams: Incredible isn't it. Blue whales…rare around that region, or were they more common then?

Richard Sabin: Back in the late 19th century there was still relatively large numbers of blue whales that would migrate through the Irish Sea and off the west coast of Ireland into the north Atlantic regularly. And of course this was exploited by the whaling fleets in the early 20th century which led to a crash in the numbers of blue whales by the mid-20th century, and thankfully the moratorium on commercial whaling which was brought in.

Robyn Williams: I know that there are often blue whales around Rottnest Island, off the coast of Western Australia, and I think they may be a different species. Is there more than one species of blue whale?

Richard Sabin: There are certainly different sub species of blue whale. There's a form of pygmy, what is known as a pygmy blue whale which occurs not too far from Australia. There is actually in the Southern Ocean a sanctuary that was set up to help protect the populations of pygmy blue whales in that area. But yes, they do vary quite considerably across their range. So some of the biggest examples that we know in museum collections and certainly from field observations come from the waters off the Antarctic. Certainly the animals that we used to find back in the 19th century in the north Atlantic were of a size, and certainly the specimen that have that we are going to redisplay in our Hintze Hall, she was close to 30 metres in length.

Robyn Williams: That is huge isn't it. Are they really blue?

Richard Sabin: They are very blue, they are remarkably blue. When you see them close…if you are lucky enough to get to see them close…obviously the colour kind of refracts through the seawater depending on the depth of the animal, but they are truly very blue. They can occasionally have a yellowish tinge onto their underside, their ventral surface because of the diatoms that build up there, but very blue and sometimes very well camouflaged.

Robyn Williams: Have you swum with them?

Richard Sabin: I haven't swum with them, I have been fortunate enough to be in a small boat next to a large young animal off the north coast of Iceland a number of years ago, that was an experience I'll never forget.

Robyn Williams: And what are you doing with them to study them, before we get to the exhibition?

Richard Sabin: Well, primarily at the moment we're looking at novel techniques, developing techniques to look at the way that museum collections can really be opened up to give us information about an animal's diet, distribution, longevity to a certain extent, the periods between one calf and another, the point at which females of certain whale species become sexually mature. And you'd probably say to me how on earth do you do that. We have fortunately formed collaborations with colleagues across the world who are working on techniques for extracting information from things like earplugs. Who thought earplugs would ever be fascinating in a topic of conversation?

Robyn Williams: They've got rings in them haven't they?

Richard Sabin: They do, they are formed of layers of tissue which are laid down on a fairly regular basis, roughly once a year. And back in the '50s, my predecessors here at the Natural History Museum actually realised that you could extract these things from blue whales and fin whales and section them longitudinally, you can count those layers and figure out how old these animals were. But much more excitingly these days we can do things like because it's lipid rich material it locks down chemicals, hormones, stress hormones, pregnancy hormones, and also if the animal has been living in a polluted environment, so the presence or absence of certain types of pesticides and other marine pollutants. We can use them as a record of how things have changed over time.

Robyn Williams: How long do they live, do you think?

Richard Sabin: Well, that's still open to debate, but it's probably thought that blue whales live close to 100 years or so. We may find out differently as time goes on. Look at the bowhead whale, now the estimates have gone up from around about 200 to 300 years, which is just incredible.

Robyn Williams: And that would assume that they don't necessarily reproduce that often, because big creatures tend not to. And so if you are culling them, as you were saying before, then the populations really would crash.

Richard Sabin: Well, that's it, you've got to think about the investment of energy and resources it takes such a large animal to produce an offspring. So with bowhead whales it's been found from looking at earplugs from females that have been taken in the past few years from stranded animals, that they may leave a gap of 6 to 10 years before they produce another offspring. Remember that cetaceans as well as dolphins and porpoises only produce a single offspring because of the huge investment of energy.

Robyn Williams: How do you suckle a baby if you are in the water?

Richard Sabin: Yes, that's a question that we are asked an awful lot, but the milk from the mammary gland is actually squirted through muscular activity into the mouth of the calf. So it's delivered at a fairly high velocity.

Robyn Williams: They must swallow fast as well.

Richard Sabin: Absolutely, yes.

Robyn Williams: It must be pretty rich if they are going to grow that vast bulk. Talking about bulk, how do you make an exhibition with something so huge? Even a big museum like this would have a limited space.

Richard Sabin: We have had to be very creative, and fortunately we have a very creative team working at the museum, people who have great expertise at using projections, audio-visual, so really to give people a sense of the scale of something that you couldn't, as you say, show in a much smaller space, portions of the animal, sort of an indication that something is moving slightly out of your field of vision, shadows passing in front of lights and so on. It's incredibly good what they have done.

Robyn Williams: One of the cutest things I've seen in a museum recently, actually in Launceston, in Tasmania, was the use of virtual reality where you were standing next to in fact a dinosaur. And because it's in a space, imagine you are somewhere out in the open and you've got this dinosaur leg next to you and you get the feeling of scale. It's gigantic, unbelievably huge. Can you possibly one day with your exhibition utilise virtual reality?

Richard Sabin: There are still discussions going on about the various techniques that that we are going to use, but certainly augmented reality is something that we will be using with the blue whale to allow our visitors to maybe use their mobile phone, their smart phone to literally put flesh on the bones of the skeleton, to see internal organs and to look at various biological processes. So yes, the augmented reality platform is something that we will look at in a lot more detail in future.

Robyn Williams: Well, it's spectacular what you can do these days, isn't it, because I remember that wonderful program that David Attenborough made here at the museum standing next to various displays, and they came to life and zoomed around. Were you here at the time?

Richard Sabin: I was here when that was being made and it was a huge amount of work, and I know Sir David is incredibly passionate about the Natural History Museum. But it was great to see him in very familiar spaces with specimens that we all know so well that were literally coming to life. But this is the thing about every single specimen in our collection, 80 million or so specimens, there's a story there, a life history. And that was a wonderful way of making it more accessible I think to the general public.

Robyn Williams: Dr Richard Sabin at the Natural History Museum in London where the whale exhibition is being prepared for 2017. But if you can't wait, there's the one at the Museum of Victoria in Melbourne, just opened.

Richard SabinPrincipal Curator Vertebrates
Natural History Museum
London UK

Further Information
Richard Sabin at the Natural History Museum

PresenterRobyn Williams ProducerDavid Fisher