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A whale of a job part 7: Why do we need 300 whales, anyway?

Posted on 20-09-2017 by Becky Desjardins

When you come to visit a museum, whether a science museum, or an art museum, or a history center, what you see on exhibit is only a small fraction of what the museum has. Behind the scenes there is a lot more!

In the case of Naturalis, in the big silver tower behind the museum sit 37 million specimens representing all aspects of the natural world. We have fossils, birds, shells, insects, corals, mosses, mammals, fish, trees, rocks….samples of everything.  We have extinct animals, specimens collected by famous scientists, valuable gems, and much more. This scientific collection is a library, representing life on Earth throughout time.


Imagine for a minute that you are a researcher who studies harbor porpoises. You come and visit the scientific collection at Naturalis.  We possess a few hundred specimens of the harbor porpoise: males, females, and juveniles. The collection includes harbor porpoises from every place in the world where they are found.  We also have old specimens, animals which died and brought to the museum 200 years ago.  There is a lot of information in the harbor porpoise collection.  For example, when you observe specimens and compare individuals, you note that females are larger than males.  Within the collection you can see differences between populations: for instance, Baltic Sea harbor porpoises are different than the population found in the North Sea.  In addition, you can see how populations change over time: in the North Sea, populations crashed but then rebounded over a period of 50 years.


In the last 15 years we have seen whale diversity in the North Sea change via strandings.  In 2004 was the first ever humpback whale stranding in recent history, followed by second in 2011.  Just this past summer the first ever Greenland Whale was seen swimming of the coast of the Netherlands, and though happily it did not strand, perhaps this is an indication that more are to come.  The North Sea is getting deeper as a result of climate change, and increased whale diversity could be a side effect of this.


If your local library stopped acquiring new books, you probably wouldn’t visit any more.  For museums it is the same. If we stop bringing in specimens we will no longer be relevant because we will no longer be recording life on Earth.  So, the question is not really why do we need 300 whales, but instead, why do we ONLY have 300 whales?

Want to learn more about whale strandings in the Netherlands? Visit http://www.walvisstrandingen.nl/

Want to learn more about what is in the Naturalis Collections? Visit https://www.naturalis.nl/en/science/collection/  

Brasseur, Sophie MJM, et al. "Rapid recovery of Dutch gray seal colonies fueled by immigration." Marine Mammal Science 31.2 (2015): 405-426.

Leopold, Mardik F., et al. "Exposing the grey seal as a major predator of harbour porpoises." Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 282.1798 (2015): 20142429.

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