Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Bone Project Protects Elephant Seal Legacy

Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries

What started as a decaying elephant seal, washed up on the shores of Marrowstone Island, is now much more than a pile of blubber and bones.

It’s a stunning success story celebrating the renaissance of a species hunted to near-extinction for its oil, one that can inspire future marine biologists.

More than a year has passed since we checked in with Mandi Johnson, AmeriCorps volunteer program educator at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center working on the Northern Elephant Seal Project, and things are moving ahead rapidly.

Last we heard, after recovering the deceased male elephant seal (estimated to be 8 or 9 years old) with the gracious help of Dyanna Lambourn, marine mammal biologist and pinniped* expert at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Johnson and a team of volunteers and other staffers transported the seal’s bones to hang beneath the Fort Worden pier. There, the soft tissues were decomposed in the salt water, an early step in preparing the skeleton for education and possible exhibit use.

After soaking the bones in various mixtures of salt water, soap and ammonia, and peroxide and water, the team carefully moved the bones into a historic Fort Worden building, generously on loan from the Washington State Parks, for further preservation and articulation.

Rib bones and vertebrae, photo by Margot Desannoy.
The bones are now almost all cleaned and coated with resin to preserve them and make them safer and easier to handle for display and teaching purposes.

Also, a bone count is underway. Specialists estimate elephant seals have more than 200 bones compared to the 206 bones in the adult human skeleton.

PTMSC is currently seeking a grant to fund the design of what could be described as a “3D sculptural puzzle” of the seal’s skeleton parts that can be used in the classroom to recreate its structural beauty, bone by bone, flipper by flipper. The idea is to create a hands-on “Elephant (Seal) in the Room” kit, transportable in a sturdy box or frame, along with curriculum materials, bone diagrams and charts. 

Tiny bones from the flippers shown with toothbrush to
indicate relative size
. P
hoto by Margot Desannoy.
“As a child I found puzzles to be frustrating and boring,” Johnson noted, “but I loved to build sculpture-type things. This project is so dynamic, it’s all learning as we go. I am excited about seeing the full skeleton laid out and ready for exhibit, as well as the school project.”

Since December 2019, the elephant seal bone-cleaning team, including Johnson, PTMSC Citizen Science Coordinator Betsy Carlson and four energetic and knowledge-hungry volunteers -- Mary C., Sally Davis, Mike Hilt and Joanne LaBaw -- has worked more than 30 hours sorting and preparing the bones. For guidance, they relied on books such as the "Pinniped Projects, Vol. 4" by Lee “The Boneman” Post, a renowned expert on saving, cleaning, restoring and recreating skeletons of birds and large mammals.

Mandi Johnson with seal dancing ‘cheek to cheek.’ Photo by Margot Desannoy.
Once the bones are consolidated, the team will line them up in order. They hope to complete this phase of the project by late spring or early summer. Then, if the grant application is successful, work will begin on crafting the portable teaching kit.

“This is such a great learning opportunity for the community,” Carlson explained. “Periodically, we process a dead marine mammal to use for display in our exhibit or for educational programs. Our agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration allows us to curate these items.

Betsy Carlson mixes up some resin using Paraloid B72 in a jar to dissolve overnight. Respirators and gloves are safety-first essentials when mixing water with volatile and flammable acetone to create the resin. Photo by Margot Desannoy.

“We are very grateful to Dyanna Lambourn for her invaluable, on-going assistance and to the Washington State Parks for letting us use the Fort Worden space which is well-ventilated and heated, perfect for the bones to be left out safely,” she said. “And of course to NOAA, the Marine Mammal Stranding Network and the wonderful volunteers who are putting it all together.”

* The pinnipeds (from the Latin meaning ‘fin-footed’) are a group of marine mammals which includes seals, sea lions and walrus (https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/earth-and-planetary-sciences/pinniped).

Written by Margot Desannoy, PTMSC volunteer.

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