Conserving the Collections

The extensive scientific collections of the Delaware Museum of Nature and Science are utilized by scientists and researchers all around the world. As catalog databases of the collections and their inventories are constantly being built and updated, they are also made more accessible. Increased use of these collections needs to be balanced with conservation efforts to ensure they exist for future generations. Unfortunately, some materials used to store specimens have become outdated and require replacement to best preserve the museum’s collections.

Rows of metal cabinets house the mollusk and bird collections at the Delaware Museum of Nature and Science.

Current Conservation Methods

In the mollusks collection, specimens are preserved either as the dry animal-made shell, or as the entire body and soft parts of the animal in alcohol. The bird collection specimens are preserved as study skins (a specialized taxidermy for research), but also have preserved tissue samples in alcohol, spread wings, skeletons, and traditional taxidermy.

Currently, the collection is stored in specimen trays that are made of paste board wrapped in paper. Depending on their age, some trays may or may not be made out of archival quality material. However, new archival boxes can still endure changes in chemistry when they come into contact with wooden drawers that exist in many cabinets. These wooden drawers could release harmful acid vapors and change the chemical composition of the storage materials. When these materials touch specimens they can cause the chemicals to breakdown, recrystallize, and destroy the specimens, according to Alex Kittle, Senior Collections Manager of Mollusks.

Archival boxes are often laid with unbuffered paper to help protect specimens
Mollusks in archival boxes are stored in trays
Yellowing spots on this shell indicate Byne’s disease, a decay of calcium carbonate and acidic vapor.
Toucans and hornbills stored with unbuffered paper
Fuzzy coating on the left egg indicates decay from Byne’s disease
Fuzzy coating on the egg indicates decay from Byne’s Disease
Damage to these butterflies are indicative of pests

Plans for Improvements

Improvements needed to the collections have been addressed. The collections would benefit from plastic boxes made of a stable plastic and more archival specimen trays. There are regular updates to materials that contain specimens, but there can only be so much done each year. Changing the cabinets the specimens are currently housed in could also prevent any concern of pest damage, and make a world of difference in improving long term conservation. Fortunately, all of the study skin collections are already in new cabinets with metal drawers and archival materials.

Conservation of data is another important concern of collections management. In certain bird species with a fatty diet, oil can seep onto identification tags, remove ink, and make them impossible to read. Additionally, beetles and other pests will feed on organic materials like feathers and introduce harmful microorganisms to specimens. Having up-to-date powder-coated steel cabinetry with a total seal to keep pests from the collections is vital for conservation, according to Ashley Kempken, Collections Manager of Birds. The collections team has also implemented a freezer treatment protocol to kill potential pests on collections objects after they have been used by researchers or in exhibits.

Natural acidity and chemicals can also impact the conservation of specimens. Correct storage of specimens requires using the appropriate archival containers, as chemical reactions from storage materials can easily damage collections over time. Researchers can use methods such as a pH pen to spot check acidity in materials that hold specimens.

Community Read

In 2024, we again join local libraries and community partners for the eleventh year of the Longwood Gardens’ Community Read — a program designed to encourage reading for pleasure and start a conversation. For the upcoming year, we offer a variety of programs to enjoy these amazing selections.

The Secret Garden

In the children’s book, The Secret Garden, based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the characters discover a secret all their own.

The Last Garden in England

In the book, The Last Garden in England, by Julia Kelly, we follow multiple women over time who come to appreciate the same garden.

Both books are available for purchase in the museum store!

Mobile Museum Outreach Program

In the children’s book, The Secret Garden, based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the characters discover a secret all their own.

As part of the Longwood Gardens Community Read Program, the Delaware Museum of Nature and Science comes to you. This program is great for organizations such as libraries, daycares, after-school groups, and classrooms.

Who doesn’t love a secret? The Secret Garden will come to you with one of our educators. Learn to love the outdoors through this interactive hour including an interactive book reading, a scene-setting 10×10 tent, and plenty of touchable specimens. Be prepared to get dirty hands!

$150 per program, maximum 25 participants.

Events

Canvas, Conversations & Chamomile

Wednesday, May 8 | 1 p.m.

Seniors, join us as we discuss The Last Garden in England while painting your own work of art related to the book. Jess Myers, a scientist and artist, offers her painting and nature expertise. Even if you didn’t read the book, join us for lively conversation, creating a work of art, and tasty nibbles. Pre-registration required. Pre-registration required.

$30 per person

Fairy Tale Saturday

Saturday, April 27 | 10 a.m.

Dress up as your favorite fairy tale character and join Ms. Ofelia (dressed as a character herself) for storytime, followed by a variety of themed activities throughout the museum, including a floral craft, a blooming science experiment of color, a bug identification station, and more. Preregistration suggested.

$3/DelMNS members, $17/non-members (ages 3 and up), $7/non-member toddlers (ages 1-2). Price includes admission for the day.

New bird species discovered through scientific collections

Natural history collections are full of surprises, with scientists updating what is known about different species and uncovering new ones.

Dr. Matthew Halley, Assistant Curator of Birds, is the lead author of a recently-published paper that splits the Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush (Catharus fuscater) into seven different species and four subspecies — including a newly-described species from eastern Panamá: the Darién Nightingale-thrush (Catharus arcanus).

Photo of Matthew Halley by Jenna McCullough

These genetically distinct populations live in secluded mountain rainforests in Central and South America and began to diverge from each other nearly three million years ago.

The species look very similar to an untrained eye. To document their differences, Dr. Halley and his team sequenced DNA from multiple populations, studied physical features like plumage color, iris color and bill color, and analyzed differences in their vocalizations.

Dr. Halley shared the findings on his Twitter (now X) account. Read on for a summary, along with some of the figures from the paper:

This figure shows the geographic distribution of the C. [fuscater] complex in Central and South America. Lines point to type localities. The variation in shapes denote sampling locations for different molecular data. Shape size is correlated with the number of samples (1–3).

The C. fuscater complex (Turdidae) is composed of several disjunct populations that inhabit cloudy mountain rainforests, ranging from Costa Rica to Bolivia. These birds are diabolically shy and more often heard than seen. Their song is a series of sweet, musical whistles.

The research identified 10 genetically distinct populations that have been evolving independently for multiple glacial cycles. Molecular clock suggests most lineages diverged in early Pleistocene / late Pliocene— ancient lineages with independent evolutionary trajectories.

This figure shows taxonomic variation in the structure of ‘punctuation calls’, visualized in RavenPro 1.5 (Cornell University), recognizing three groups based on shared acoustic structure: (Type 1) pulsed/rippling: C. [f.] hellmayri, Undescribed 1 (now C. arcanus), C. [f.] mirabilis; (Type 2) long/sinuous: C. [f.] sanctaemartae, C. [f.] fuscater, C. [f.] berplepschi; (Type 3) short/simple: Undescribed 2 (now C. o. tenebris), C. [f.] opertaneus, Undescribed 3 (now C. b. nebulus), C. [f.] mentalis.

Populations were divergent in the acoustic structure of three different call types, which are presumed to be innately acquired (i.e., not learned), and there were subtle differences among populations in song structure, which is presumably learned.

This image is a side view of polychromatic adult plumages in C. [f.] mentalis (from left to right): 1, FMNH 433742, a ‘grey’ male with enlarged testes; 2, FMNH 433738, a ‘brown’ male with enlarged testes; 3, FMNH 364458, a ‘brown’ male with testes not enlarged; 4, FMNH 433740, an adult female with an enlarged ovary. Adults of both colour types (FMNH 433742, 433738) were collected at the same site in November
2001.

Halley traveled to the American Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of Natural History and Carnegie Museum of Natural History to study their C. fuscater specimens, and borrowed specimens from the Field Museum, LSU Museum of Natural Science, and the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, bringing them to the museum to look at sexual and age-related differences in plumage color.

This image shows ventral and dorsal views of the adult male plumages in C. b. berlepschi, C. b. caniceps, C. o. tenebris ssp. nov., C. b. nebulus ssp. nov., and C. mentalis.

With a large sample of study skins assembled under one light source (flat panel LED), subtle differences between populations, difficult to appreciate in the field, became easier to notice — Halley scored this variation by comparing the specimens to published color standards.

The taxonomic revision splits the C. [fuscater] complex into seven species, of which one is newly described, and four subspecies, of which two are newly described (C. opertaneus tenebris, C. berlepschi nebulus). New English names were proposed for each species. The seven species are:

Talamanca Nightingale-thrush (Catharus hellmayri) – monotypic – Northern mountains of Costa Rica (Rincón de la Vieja, Miravalles, Tenorio) to west-central Panama (Parque Nacional Santa Fé, Veraguas). (Photo: alchetron.com)
Darién Nightingale-thrush (Catharus arcanus, sp. nov.) – monotypic – E Panama, endemic to Serranía de Majé and Serranía del Darién, from Cerro Azul in the west, to Cerro Tacarcuna in the east
Pirre Nightingale-thrush (Catharus mirabilis) – monotypic – Endemic to Cerro Pirre, Darién province, E Panama. (Photo: ML 242929041)
Cordilleran Nightingale-thrush (Catharus fuscater) – polytypic – (1) C. f. sanctaemartae, endemic to Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, NE Colombia; (2) C. f. fuscater, Sierra de Perijá of Venezuela, N and E Andes of Colombia and Venezuela. (Photo: ML 206115721)
Trans-Andean Nightingale-thrush (Catharus berlepschi) – polytypic – (1) C. b. berlepschi, W Andes in Ecuador; (2) C. b. caniceps, W Andes in Ecuador, S to NW Peru; (3) C. b. nebulus, ssp. nov., E Peruvian Andes. (Photo: ML 38468741)
Antioquia Nightingale-thrush (Catharus opertaneus) – polytypic – (1) C. o. opertaneus, NW and Central Andes in Colombia, S to Napo, Ecuador; (2) C. o. tenebris, ssp. nov., Río Chinchipe watershed of N Peru and SE Ecuador
Cochabamba Nightingale-thrush (Catharus mentalis) – monotypic – S Peru, east of the Río Apurímac, E to Santa Cruz, Bolivia

Note: Monotypic species are not divided into subspecies. Polytypic species can be divided into at least two subspecies.

Halley, M. R., Catanach, T. A., Klicka, J., and J. D. Weckstein. 2023. Integrative taxonomy reveals hidden diversity in the Catharus fuscater (Passeriformes: Turdidae) complex in Central and South America. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society zlad031. LINK

If you are unable to access the paper and would like a copy, please email Matt Halley.

Learn more about Dr. Halley’s research projects and publications on his website.

World of Discovery series returns

The World of Discovery series is back at the Delaware Museum of Nature and Science.

Join us for the World of Discovery lecture series at the Delaware Museum of Nature and Science. This fall, we welcome scientists from the University of Delaware College of Earth, Ocean and Environment to present an in-depth look at the pioneering research impacting the future of Earth’s ecosystems.

The Complex Past and Future Trajectory of Coral Reefs

Wednesday, November 8 | 7 p.m.

Coral reefs have long been recognized as the “rainforests of the sea,” with fantastic biodiversity and ecological importance. However, they represent a paradox between the long-term success and resilience of evolution and growth over millions of years and an incredibly fragile ecosystem that is losing a global race against climate change and a host of local threats. This presentation will introduce several aspects of the science behind how coral reefs have been so successful, how they are threatened, and how some scientists are racing to understand what can be done to slow and manage the loss of this critically important ecosystem.

Mark Warner is a Professor in the School of Marine Science and Policy at the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment at the University of Delaware. He studied marine biology at Northeastern University and the University of Georgia (UGA), where he received his bachelor’s degree in zoology and doctorate in ecology. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship in plant biology at UGA, he joined the faculty of the University of Delaware in 2001. He is a Fellow of the International Coral Reef Society and has studied the ecological physiology of reef-building corals for over 30 years in many western and eastern Pacific locations, the Andaman and Red Sea, and the Caribbean.


Past events

Exploring the hidden lives of sharks

Wednesday, October 11 | 7 p.m.

Sharks capture the public’s attention like no other species, as demonstrated by the popularity of Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” and the frequency with which stories of sharks “lurking” in local waters grab headlines. However, despite the great public interest in sharks and the important role they play in marine ecosystems, these animals remain misunderstood and challenging to study. Learn how new research is shedding light on the biology and ecology of sharks and how scientists are using cutting-edge technologies to view the hidden lives of sharks and aid in the conservation and management of these iconic predators.

Aaron Carlisle is an Assistant Professor in the School of Marine Science and Policy at the University of Delaware. He has studied the biology and ecology of fishes for the last 20 years, largely focusing on elasmobranch (sharks, skates, and rays) and pelagic fishes (tunas, billfishes).

The du Pont Trophy

Connecting art with science: the du Pont Trophy original paintings by artist Lauren J. Sweeney

For more than 50 years, the museum has presented the du Pont Trophy Award to the “overall outstanding exhibit” entered at shell shows around the country. The award honors exceptional citizen scientists having a passion for shells, shell collecting, and the natural history of mollusks.

For the majority of its history, the du Pont Trophy was a simple engraved plaque. As part of the Museum’s 40th anniversary celebration in 2012, Director of Collections and Curator of Mollusks, Liz Shea, Ph.D. re-imagined the award to celebrate the variety in the museum’s vast collection of more than two million mollusks. She turned to long-time museum supporter and local artist, Lauren J. Sweeney, Ph.D. to make this vision a reality. The result is an original watercolor highlighting a different shell from the collection each year. A framed limited-edition, signed print of this commission is presented to the du Pont Trophy winners.

Lauren Sweeney’s paintings are informed by a lifetime of scientific observation. Originally a biologist who focused her talents on research, teaching, and scientific illustrations, Lauren is now a full-time artist. Her attention to detail brings the shape, color, texture, and pattern of her subjects into sharp focus. Lauren has exhibited her work in the greater Philadelphia area, including the Sketch Club, Gallery Twenty Two, and the Main Line Art Center.

For more information about the artist, visit www.inliquid.org.

The original paintings, currently on exhibit, are for sale for $600 to benefit the museum’s collections.

2023 duPont Trophy

Lambis lambis

The 2023 du Pont Trophy features the changing morphology of Lambis lambis. These dramatically different stages are symbolic of the major metamorphosis the museum experienced over the past few years. The Delaware Museum of Nature and Science reopened to the public in May 2022 with completely renovated exhibit spaces.

2022 duPont Trophy

Melongena corona

This painting depicts the marine snail Melongena corona as positioned on Curator of Mollusks Elizabeth Shea, Ph.D.’s kitchen table. The specimen (and setting) was chosen in recognition of the chaotic year ushered in by COVID.

SOLD

2020 du Pont Trophy

Spirula spirula

This painting features the internal shell of Spirula spirula, a deep sea cephalopod commonly referred to as ram’s horn squid. They are more often collected as shells than as live organisms. S. spirula was selected for the painting in recognition of research projects conducted by Widener University students.

2019 du Pont Trophy

Tellina radiata

This specimen of Tellina radiata, a bivalve mollusk commonly known as the Sunrise Tellin, is from the Alison Bradford collection, bequeathed to the museum by Alison Bradford, a longtime volunteer and member of the Board of Trustees. Bradford had been at the museum for over 30 years. She passed away in the summer of 2018 and transferred her collection of more than 1,000 shells to the museum, most collected in Gasparilla Island, Florida, where she owned a home. 

2018 du Pont Trophy

Haliotis fulgens Philippi

The pearlescent marine sea snail abalone is the inspiration for the 2018 du Pont Trophy, featuring two specimens of the green abalone Haliotis fulgens Philippi, 1845 (DMNH 10958). These specimens have a beautiful nacreous layer and were selected by the museum’s first Mollusk Curator, R. Tucker Abbott, for illustration in the second edition of American Seashells. Published in 1974, the book is an essential resource for shell lovers and an important part of the museum’s history.

SOLD

2017 du Pont Trophy

Liguus crenatus variation

The 2017 du Pont trophy was based on shells owned by renowned Delaware illustrator Frank Schoonover, a gift from one of his most well-known clients, Irénée du Pont, owner of Granogue in Delaware and the fabled Xanadu mansion in Cuba, where the shells were collected. The shells were donated to the museum in December 2015 by Schoonover’s grandson John Schoonover.

2016 du Pont Trophy

Anodonta imbecilis from Florida

This year’s shell is a group of freshwater bivalves, commonly known as Paper Pondshells, collected in Lake Talquin, Florida in 1954. Freshwater bivalves are the focus of a recent National Science Foundation grant that will help the museum share its collections on the web.

2015 du Pont Trophy

Leporicypraea mappa variation

The museum’s mollusk collection contains over 250,000 boxes (or “lots”) of shells, making it one of the largest collections in North America. The Map Cowries in this painting highlight the depth of the museum’s holdings and the variation found within a single species.

2014 du Pont Trophy

Spondylus with data label

New collections come into the museum from many sources, often accompanied by old data labels. This specimen of Thorny Oyster is a beautiful and ornate U.S. species, complete with an interesting original data card.

2013 du Pont Trophy

Scaphella junonia on sand

Finding a Junonia on the beaches of the Florida Gulf Coast is cause for celebration. This composition highlights the popular marine snail resting on a background of sand collected from Boca Grande, Florida by long-time museum trustee and volunteer Alison Bradford.

SOLD

2012 du Pont Trophy

Festilyria duponti holotype

The subject of the first watercolor is Festilyria duponti, a shell named by Clifton Stokes Weaver in honor of Delaware Museum of Natural History founder, John E. du Pont. The background is a representation of a technical book on shells, co-authored by du Pont and Weaver.

New species discovered using museum’s online collection data

Introducing Bourciera ovata

In the summer of 2020 — the first year of the pandemic — a team of European scientists began compiling a checklist of known terrestrial and fresh water mollusks of mainland Ecuador. The effort included occurrences recorded in past scientific reports or literature, museum datasets available online, and verified observations from citizen science projects like iNaturalist.

In reviewing our records, one of the scientists, Marijn Roosen of the Natural History Museum of Rotterdam, noticed some unusual records of a unique land snail in the Andes Mountains. Marijn requested more information about the snails and photographs to confirm their identifications. It turned out that some of the specimens from Puyo, Ecuador represented species previously unknown to researchers, including the newly-named Bourciera ovata.

With high resolution photographs of different aspects of the snail’s shell, Marijn was able to describe it as a new species, demonstrating a greater diversity of Ecuadorian land snails and the importance of having museum collection data accessible, as surely there are many more new species to be discovered. The research was published in September in the journal Folia Malacologica.

DMNH 151926, formerly thought to be Bourciera fraseri, is now the type specimen for the newly-discovered species Bourciera ovata. A type specimen is the specific specimen on which a new species is based. The museum’s mollusk collection already included around 1,200 type specimens. Photos by Alex Kittle.

Roosen, M. and Dorado, C. Revision of the genus Bourciera Pfeiffer, 1852 (Gastropoda: Helicinidae), with the description of six new species from Ecuador and Peru. Folia Malacologica, 30(3), 155–167. https://doi.org/10.12657/folmal.030.018

Taxonomy changes reflected in new specimen organization

The introduction of Bourciera ovata is just one example of how what scientists know about species and their taxonomy continues to develop. While working from home during the pandemic in 2020, Collections Manager Alex Kittle began reorganizing the mollusk collection based on updated information and species names, and later moved the actual specimens to reflect these changes. Information about our entire mollusk collection is now publicly available on the Symbiota portal, InvertEBase. Our collection profile shows 233,603 records are available online, representing 500 families and 15,658 species; 32% are georeferenced to specific locations.

Collection Manager of Mollusks Alex Kittle in the DelMNS scientific collections.

MOTUS detects Lesser Yellowlegs

A bird species that migrates through our area — a Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) — was detected by the Motus Wildlife Tracking System (MOTUS) tower on the museum’s roof, installed by University of Delaware scientists in early 2021 to track movement of Purple Martins (Progne subis).

Lesser Yellowlegs © U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region

MOTUS is an international collaborative research network dedicated to tracking the migration of small birds, made possible by radio telemetry towers, which read the transmitter tags carried by birds that fly within about 15 km of the tower. Since our tower was installed, it has logged more than 3,200 readings.

The MOTUS tower was installed in early 2021.

The vast majority of detections are of banded Purple Martins, with some individual birds detected many times. The tower has also detected a few American Kestrels (Falco sparverius).

The tower detected the Lesser Yellowlegs on July 13, 2022. According to Dr. Nicholas Bayly, it had been banded in late April near Cali, Colombia, by researchers associated with Audubon Colombia and Asociación Selva, a non-profit organization supporting research and conservation in the Neotropics (selva.org.co).

After it was banded, the bird flew north and was detected by three towers in Missouri, and one in Michigan, before heading to our area. Five other MOTUS towers in our region also detected the bird, including Longwood Gardens. Dr. Matthew Halley, the museum’s Interim Curator of Birds, says the detection highlights the value of projects like the MOTUS program, which enable scientists all over the world to collaborate on migratory research.

This map shows the flight path of the Lesser Yellowlegs detected near DelMNS.

Map data © 2022 Google, INEGI Imagery © 2022 NASA

A Whale of a Tale

In September 2018, staff from the Delaware Museum of Natural History brought the skull of a juvenile humpback whale, as well as several other pieces of the skeleton, to the museum for exhibit and educational use. The bones were all that remained of a young humpback whale that died at sea and washed ashore in April 2017 at Port Mahon, DE. Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control moved the corpse to coastal state land near Pickering Beach, where it could decompose undisturbed.

When museum staff heard about the whale, they thought it would make an interesting addition to the reimagined museum. Bringing a piece of this size to the museum was a task with equally large challenges, which many of the staff never imagined they would undertake. Starting in mid-2017, museum staff kept an eye on the whale, secured permits, and starting in June 2018 began bringing a portion of the skeleton back to the Museum as new additions to the exhibit collection.

Because the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act federally protects whales, in order to bring the bones to the Museum, the staff had to obtain a permit from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“We are holding the bones in trust for the public,” says Shea. “If we decide in the future not to interpret them or to not do whale programming, then we have to give them back. They go back to NOAA.”

Museum scientists inspected and measured the whale’s bones in June 2018.

The Logistics of Moving a Whale

Deciding to bring the whale to the museum raised a series of questions. How would the staff move a several hundred pound skull? How would they clean the bones? And how would the bones be exhibited?

Most of the whale’s vertebrae were easy for them to obtain because these bones hadn’t sunk very deep into the sand near Pickering Beach over the course of the year. However, in order to obtain the skull, the staff would need to leverage it out of the sand. How much flesh would still be attached to underside of the skull when they did so was something Shea says they couldn’t predict.

Learn more about how museum staff moved the whale skull to the Museum from the Delaware State NewsDelawareonline and Delmarva NowWBOCWDEL, and Delaware Public Media.

Over the course of many weeks and multiple site visits, the staff developed a plan to move the skull, including wedging pieces of wood under the skull to lift it out of the sand and onto its side. Then, they used a pressure washer powered by a generator to wash the skull’s underside before moving it to a clean location on the beach where it could finish decaying. Chris Hayden, the Museum’s Director of Maintenance and the key architect behind the plan to move the skull, set up a pump system to draw water from the Delaware Bay into a filtration system to supply the pressure washer. Once the skull was free of the sand and clean, it was carried across the beach to a wood palette where the skull sat while waiting to be finally moved to the museum.

Chris Hayden, the museum’s Director of Facilities, created a system using bay water to clean the skull.

At 8 by 11 feet, the skull was too large to fit in an ordinary pickup truck. To bring it the sixty miles to the museum, Hayden and his team moved the skull onto a flat trailer pulled by a truck. On the way north, the team stopped at the Cartanza Grain Elevator to weigh the skull: 280 lbs., not counting the jawbones.

We wanted to know how much the skull weighed, but our scales weren’t big enough. On the way back from Pickering Beach, we took it to Cartanza Farms to weigh. The result: 280 lbs.

The bones needed to be cleaned and prepared before being used for exhibits, educational programs, or storage within the collections. While museum staff had experience cleaning and treating smaller bones, none of them had worked with a whale skeleton before. “We have learned that whale bones can leak oils for many, many years,” said Elizabeth Shea, Ph.D., the museum’s Director of Collections and Curator of Mollusks. “So we need to do what we can to minimize that.”

To help make these challenges more manageable, the staff decided to only obtain a portion of the skeleton, including the skull, the right jawbone, vertebrae from three different sections of the spine, and several pieces from the flipper. Shea says they chose pieces that could be used for education and what would captivate visitors.

The smaller bones, such as the vertebrae, were stored in freezers to rid them of insects that could damage the collections and later cleaned by museum staff.

The jawbone and skull were too large to fit in either the freezers or the bug room and were temporarily stored in a shed built specifically to hold the bones. In March 2021, the museum brought in an expert, Dan DenDanto from Whales and Nails, who took both pieces back to his facility in Maine to clean and prepare them for exhibit. Whales and Nails articulates whale skeletons for museums and educational institutions.

Telling a Whale’s Story…and a Delaware Story

Bringing the whale to the museum involved more than just physically transporting it to its new home.  Museum staff wanted to tell the whale’s story through exhibits and interpretation.

“My hope is that we can have a story to go with the whale,” says Helen Bilinski, the museum’s Director of Exhibits. The museum’s humpback whale was one of five that washed ashore in Delaware between 2016 and 2017. Understanding how it died is one place for the staff to start in uncovering the whale’s story. Shea says they’ve requested the whale’s autopsy from the Marine Education, Research, and Rehabilitation Institute (MERR), who attended to the whale when it washed ashore.

Shortly after the whale was found, NOAA declared that an “unusual mortality event” had occurred for humpback whales near the Atlantic coast. The designation was prompted because, starting in 2016, an abnormal number of them had washed up dead along the United States’ east coast.

When NOAA designates an “unusual mortality event,” they organize a group of outside scientists to help NOAA’s Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events research the cause for the event. The Atlantic humpback whale study is still ongoing. Our whale is one of eight in Delaware who died during this UME.

Beyond a closer look at these deaths, Bilinski says the whale can also tell a story of “life happening off the coast of Delaware that few people know about.”

Populations of humpback whales from Maine and Canada pass offshore the entire east coast as they migrate to the West Indies to breed and give birth and back north to feed. However, in a 2002 study published in the Journal of Cetacean Research and Management, a group of scientists suggested that the Mid-Atlantic could also act as an additional feeding ground for humpback whales.

The museum staff hopes the whale will help them better tell the story of Delaware’s coastal waterways. “The estuary we live on—the Delaware Bay—is a really important estuary,” says Shea. “The land masses we all live on are a third of what the world has to offer. So there’s a lot out there in the oceans we need to be talking about.”

Take a look at the Oceans exhibits, featuring our juvenile humpback whale skull, in the Alison K. Bradford Global Journey Gallery. The whale exhibit is sponsored by M&T Bank.

This is an updated version of an article written by Lindsay Townsend, originally published on the Delaware Museum of Natural History website in October 2018.

Gala & Glow

A heartfelt thank you to all who celebrated the museum’s 50th anniversary — and the completion of our metamorphosis into the new Delaware Museum of Nature and Science — at our Gala and Glow on Friday, May 13, 2022.

Research Headquarters

How we know what we know:

In the Research Headquarters, sponsored by DuPont, explore stories about scientific research and related projects from our local area and beyond.

Scientists help us better understand the world around us. They conduct research in all kinds of environments: in the field, in the laboratory, and even in the museum’s natural history collections. They observe animals and plants in the air, on the land, and in the water. They conduct experiments and collect data to test their observations. Over time, they draw conclusions based on what they find, helping us make sense of what’s happening on the planet. What we know changes as scientists gather and share new information.

Tucked into the Regional Journey Gallery, the Research Headquarters currently includes stories about the Delaware Shorebird Project and the juvenile humpback whale collected by museum scientists in 2018. Other stories currently on view also include some of the research behind DuPont’s Kalrez® technology, citizen science project Coast Snap by Delaware Sea Grant, and exploring with carnivore ecologist Rae Wynn-Grant, courtesy of the IF/THEN® Collection.

On the back end, the stories in the Research Headquarters are installed in a content management system created by digital design studio RLMG. It’s set up so new stories can be uploaded seasonally.

Stories involving museum scientists

The juvenile humpback whale skull was weighed on its way to the museum.

A tale of a whale

A juvenile humpback whale died at sea and washed ashore near Port Mahon, Delaware. The whale, one of 34 humpback whales stranded on the East Coast in 2017, presented an opportunity to tell this important story at the Delaware Museum of Nature & Science. But first, museum staff had to determine how to retrieve the 280 lbs. skull from the beach.

Shorebirds at Mispillion Harbor.

Shorebirds on the bay

Each spring millions of horseshoe crabs migrate into Delaware Bay to lay their eggs on sandy beaches. At the same time, nearly half a million shorebirds arrive to rest and refuel on their way to breed on the Arctic Tundra. Their primary food is horseshoe crab eggs. The Delaware Shorebird Project studies the birds and the importance of the bay to their survival. Learn more about the Delaware Shorebird Project.

Stories from our partners

DuPont’s Kalrez® technology

From aerospace and chemical processing to chip manufacturing and oil and gas applications, DuPont™ Kalrez® elastomers are engineered to provide more stability, more resistance, and more effective sealing. Learn more about this technology from DuPont scientists. Learn more about Kalrez®. 

Coast Snap by Delaware Sea Grant

To manage coastlines, we need to understand how they behave. Delaware Sea Grant’s CoastSnap is a citizen science program harnessing smartphones and orthophotogrammetry to help scientists learn more about the shoreline. By using CoastSnap, the community becomes an integral part of the science team. Learn more about CoastSnap.

From the IF/THEN® Collection

Image by Tsalani Lassiter, courtesy of the IF/THEN® Collection

Carnivore ecologist Rae Wynn-Grant, courtesy of the IF/THEN® Collection

Rae Wynn-Grant, Ph.D. might just have the coolest job on the planet. As a carnivore ecologist working for National Geographic, she researches how endangered species are impacted by human interaction. Her work currently focuses on grizzly bears in Montana, but has previously taken her around the world — including to Tanzania and Kenya to study lions. The If/Then Collection is a digital asset library of women STEM innovators. Learn more about the If/Then® Collection.

The Research Headquarters is sponsored by DuPont