The first over-land migration of Canadian beluga

Like many of us, I'm sure, I have a great interest in the life-sized replica cetaceans that have often been made for museum displays. Making such models is an incredibly skilled process with an honourable tradition, and it requires a huge amount of research and experience if the results are to be at all accurate.


Over the winter of 2008-9, marine mammal expert Paul Brodie - who you might recall from my discussion of his work on rorqual feeding mechanics (Brodie 1993) - completed construction of a life-sized Beluga Delphinapterus leucas mother and calf. The models were destined for display in a special beluga exhibition, scheduled to open last month, at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre (PWNHC) at Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada, and successfully arrived there in April.


As you can see in the photo above, the calf is pressed up against the mother's tail in the typical protective position used by these whales: the baby is essentially hidden from view when the models are seen from the right side, as is absolutely the case in life. Paul was initially talking about using Velcro to attach the calf, but ended up using a fast-curing marine adhesive sealant that properly attached the two animals within the space of 24 hours. Unbelievably, the adult weighs only 20 kg while the calf is a mere 3 kg. More images (and a video) showing the unpacking and positioning of the models can be seen at the PWNHC site here.

Getting the models from Paul's workshop in Halifax (Nova Scotia) to their destination in Yellowknife was a major undertaking in itself: this is a trip of 6400 km and involved a March crossing of an infamous iceroad route. Paul is in the near-unique position of being both an acknowledged expert on beluga biology (see Brodie 1989), and a skilled model-maker, and in fact he's been experimenting with casting and model-making since the age of 15. His philosophy on this is something I can really understand: if you want to understand how something works, you gotta build it. In other words, 'Some appreciation of the problems which have been overcome [in marine mammal evolution] can be gained when attempting to construct full sized, lightweight replicas' (Brodie 1999).


As you might guess from this statement, Paul has made more than his fair share of cetacean models over the years. The adjacent image, taken in 1966 by Don MacAlpine of the New Brunswick Museum, shows Paul at work on the tail of a right whale model. Paul has also worked on such subjects as the mechanics of cetacean respiration, thermal regulation in seals, the physical properties of walrus skin, and on the rise in seal numbers as bycatches have caused their predators - sharks - to decline precipitously. I'm a huge fan of his work: real hands-on stuff that comes from substantial experience and working knowledge. Many thanks to Paul for the information and images used here.

On the subject of whale anatomy, many TV-watching people in the UK will recently have been subjected to a lot of information on the way whales are put together thanks to the latest episode of Inside Nature's Giants (screened earlier this week). The series has made a point of promoting evidence for evolution and has included a few stabs at 'intelligent design' - or, creationism - along the way (Richard Dawkins does a talking head bit in each episode). More on the whole series at another time.


For previous Tet Zoo articles relevant to whale biomechanics and life-sized replicas you must see...

Refs - -

Brodie, P. F. 1989. The white whale Delphinapterus leucas (Pallas, 1776). In Ridgway, S. H. & Harrison, R. (eds) Handbook of Marine Mammals, Volume 4. Academic Press, pp. 119-125.

- . 1993. Noise generated by the jaw actions of feeding fin whales. Canadian Journal of Zoology 71, 2546-2550.

- . 1999. Marine mammal design: insights gained through construction of replicas. In Hoch, E. & Brantsen, A. K. (eds) Secondary Adaptation to Life in Water. University of Copenhagen, p. 10.


More like this

The Australian Museum in Sydney, where I spent a LOT of time in the 70s and 80s, had a pair of Common Dolphins... models that weighed much more than a few kilos, mounted on steel rods not far above the floor inside a rectangular wooden railing (a lot like the altar rail in church, though I don't recall noticing that specifically at the time). Reachable, touchable (unlike the big skeletons hanging from the roof), without requiring UGLY YELLOW PLASTIC FOLDING SIGNS to prevent you from walking into them. I can't read what it says there, is it "PISO MOJADO - WET FLOOR", or something more appropriate to context, like "FRAGILE! DON'T YOU DARE TOUCH THIS REPRESENTATION OF NATURE!"?

Anyway ('scuse me, I had no idea I was going there) it occurs to me that Paul Brodie might even have been the maker of those first (and, skeletal remains aside, still only) cetaceans I ever touched. Or another of his vintage, on the other side of the world. I might see if I can find out.

By John Scanlon, FCD (not verified) on 08 Jul 2009 #permalink

I'd think even a fiberglass shell that size would weigh
more than 20 kilos-I wonder if he's using composites in
the construction. Well, no matter, just one more reason to
visit Yellowknife one day.

By Craig York (not verified) on 08 Jul 2009 #permalink

As I already made several small models of whales, I know how difficult it can be sculpt them. It is also often not that easy to find good photos of the downsides or frontal views, and especially if you deal with already extinct species like the Basilosaurus and the Dorudon I sculpted some time ago, it can be very hard. Belugas are especally hard to sculpt (I did not sculpt one untill now), because they have a really strange body shape. You only realize this when you have really many photos from all sides of the body, and I really admire the work to sculpt a life-sized model of this quality. A very good method to make excellent models of small cetaceans is casting. Dead porpoises and small dolphins which are in good and fresh condition makes it possible to produce silicone molds. This is a comparably easy way to get high-quality models with exact proportions and all the details like scars and wrinkles. But of course you can´t hardly do this with really big animals. Even an adult beluga would be most probably already to large for this technique.

BTW, juvenile dolphins ride this way to be pushed by water currents produced by swimming mothers. I guess baby belugas do the same.

The AMNH has suspended from it`s ceiling a ninety-four -foot female Blue Whale.a twenty one thousand - pound foam and fiberglass model.located in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. The hall was renovated and re-opeaned in 2003. The original model was painted a battleship grey, but was repainted the rich blue of a living whale.

By Bob Michaels (not verified) on 08 Jul 2009 #permalink

Paul gave a plenary lecture at the first SECAD conference (Poitiers '96): it was one of the most inspiring moments in my experience. The way he sees the world is, quite literally, amazng. Nice to see his work getting some coverage.

Sordes --

I think I might know what you mean about belugas having a really strange body shape. I saw some at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. They had a kind of thick, muscular (?) ridge running along the sides/bottom edge of their torsos, from a little behind their flippers down toward their tails.

As a result, along most of their length the beluga's bodies were not circular or oval as I expected, but more like an upside "U" (or like a croquet wicket).

For a better idea of what I'm talking about: These thick "ridges" reminded me a bit of the landing-gear housings of the C-17 military cargo jet -- see and look at the front view especially -- only much longer.

In a vaguer sense, they also kind of reminded me of the "belly foot" of a snail.

Do other cetaceans have these sorts of "ridges"? I didn't notice anything like them on the dolphins.

By Stevo Darkly (not verified) on 09 Jul 2009 #permalink

Where I said "ridge" above, maybe "lip" would have been a little more descriptive.

By Stevo Darkly (not verified) on 09 Jul 2009 #permalink

And oh dammit -- the second paragraph in my first post above should read:

As a result, along most of their length the beluga's bodies were not circular or oval IN CROSS-SECTION as I expected, but more like an upside "U" (or like a croquet wicket).

(I'm sorry -- it is very late.)

By Stevo Darkly (not verified) on 09 Jul 2009 #permalink

Perfect timing!

I've been wondering how to approach people on this blog for a week, and here is the perfect segue!

I'm a sculptor, as a living, and I have had an intense interest in all things prehistoric for awhile. I have done a few dinosaurs for a sculpture company (Studio Y Creations) including three Troodons for the Museum of Life and Science in North Carolina.

I. Love. Dimetrodons. Ever since I saw them in an old 80's cartoon Dino-Riders.

It would be an amazing experience if one of the genius scientists on here familiar with Dimetrodon would be willing to work with me to do a life-size accurate-as-possible model.

Mostly I'm asking for someone to send me some accurate reference images and size data (google is not exactly a good friend for that kind of thing) and to look over pictures I send them and tell me if the skull is accurate, or if I'm making it to muscular or what have you. This project would be entirely for fun and learning so you would be able to look over the images at your leisure.

If anyone is interested I would be very appreciative!

Jesse Sinclair

P.S: Darren Naish, I'm terribly sorry for soliciting on your wonderful blog but I've been too nervous to just start cold-calling museums and this was such a perfect article to segue from.

By Jesse Sinclair (not verified) on 11 Jul 2009 #permalink