Friday, February 13, 2015
Skilled with a Skull
SDSU Museum of Biodiversity manager Mike Van Patten got his hands dirty prepping a whale skull for the museum's collection.
By Michael Price
The Curious Aztec takes you behind the scenes of scientific investigation and discovery taking place at San Diego State University.
Fair warning: This story is kind of gross. And let me get out ahead of some people’s concerns by stating upfront that the whale died of natural causes and was obtained by San Diego State University after its death. And also, maybe finish what you’re eating before you continue reading. Go on, I’ll wait.
Last month, we reported on some recently published research by SDSU biologist Ted W. Cranford. He and his colleague at the University of California, San Diego, Petr Krysl, discovered that baleen whales hear low frequencies through an evolutionary acoustic adaptation that allows their skull bones to vibrate and direct sound energy to their ear bones. They did this by putting the head of a young fin whale, which had beached and died upon a California shore in 2003, into an X-ray CT scanner, scanning it, then using highly complex mathematical software to simulate a sound wave passing through the computerized skull. You can read more about the specifics in their paper, published in the journal PLOS ONE.
The fin whale’s journey didn’t end there, however. The SDSU Museum of Biodiversity, housed on campus in the Life Sciences Building, acquired the skull. For the computer modeling, Cranford and Krysl needed the head with all its flesh, muscle, brain and connective tissue. The museum, understandably, wanted a skeletonized skull. How do you deflesh a whale’s head? It turns out you call Mike Van Patten.
Van Patten graduated with a biology degree from SDSU in 1996, but even before he graduated, he was working in the Museum of Biodiversity, helping curators J. David Archibald and Annalisa Berta with specimen preparation. Today, he’s the museum’s collection manager, and in charge of preparing new acquisitions for storage and display, and for use by classrooms and researchers. Van Patten likes working with his hands, and as he put it, “it’s never a dull day.”
Van Patten got his hands on the fin whale head in 2003. Usually, he employs thousands of tiny helpers known as dermestid beetles that munch their way through an animal’s soft tissue and leave behind a nice, clean skeleton. He tried that with the fin whale, but in this instance, the beetles started eating and burrowing into the skull, too.
“Bones are porous,” Van Patten explained, “and they start out even more porous when you’re young.”
Inside of bones are marrow and other tasty temptations for the beetles, so if the bone isn’t dense enough to prevent them from doing so, they’ll snack their way straight through.
Van Patten abandoned the beetle plan and got his hands dirty. Using a scalpel, he started removing bits of flesh, little by little. With adult animals, you can cut and pull away large strips, but with a young whale, that would pull away chunks of bone, too.
“The bone was just so fragile,” he said.
For the next several days, it was Van Patten, his trusty scalpel and the whale. Calling upon his years of experience, he patiently and delicately removed the soft tissue from every nook and every cranny. Finally, after a final rinse with soap and water, the museum had its skull.
Over the past 20 years, Van Patten has prepped the skeletons of hundreds of animals: tiny squirrels and tinier birds, rhinoceroses and polar bears. Which has been the most difficult? “The fin whale, by far,” he said.
The museum operates a handful of rotating display cases around the Life Sciences Building and hopes to open a few more in the coming months, so you may soon have the opportunity to stare Van Patten’s handiwork right in the sockets.