Nushagak Orca Articulation Project

In September of 2011, three killer whales (Orcinus orca) made their way more than 40 miles up the Nushagak River. For reasons not fully understood, the whales stayed up river in freshwater, and eventually passed away from a combination of hunger and stress. The body of one of the whales was pulled ashore in Dillingham and a necropsy was performed by NOAA scientists.

It turned out that the whale was a pregnant female. A partnership was formed between the UAF Bristol Bay Campus, the Dillingham City School District, and Nunamta Aulukestai to take ownership of the whale.  Our long-term goal is to rearticulate the skeletons of mother and fetus for public display in Dillingham.

Following the necropsy, volunteers butchered the body of the adult orca.  The bones were collected  and put into storage to be cleaned and later articulated. The fetal orca was frozen with the flesh still intact, so as not to lose any of the bones, for a later articulation.

The orca team was fortunate to partner up with Alaska’s own Lee Post (www.theboneman.com).  Lee is one of the world’s foremost experts on marine mammal skeletons and has over 30 years of experience in rearticulating skeletons.

Lee has come to UAF Bristol Bay Campus to teach 2 classes on small mammal articulation.  Our goal is to create an army of skilled bone builders  who will be ready and willing to assist in the reassembly of both orca skeletons.  The first class was in December 2012 and aimed at high school students.  This class successfully rearticulated the skeleton of a juvenile beaver (Castor canadensis).


The second class, in March 2013, included a new crop of high school students, as well as community members.  In this class we rearticulated the skeletons of a river otter (Lontra canadensis) and a red fox (Vulpes vulpes).

The next step was to butcher the fetal orca carcass and prepare the bones for rearticulation.  As far as we know, this will be the first reassembled fetal orca skeleton in the world.  Before removing bones from the frozen orca fetus, individual parts were x-rayed. This gave the researchers an idea about how many bones could be found and at what stage of development the fetus was.

In April 2013, we spent one long Saturday cutting up the carcass, finding all the bones, bagging and tagging them.  Then we boiled them as the first step in the cleaning process.  The boiled bones were allowed to air dry for a few days, and returned to the freezer.  Our next step will be to chemically treat the fetal orca bones, giving us time to plan and prepare for articulation later in 2013.

The adult female orca’s bones remain in storage.  Bacteria and bugs have removed much of the tissue.  In summer 2013, our next step for the adult bones is to macerate them, which is to immerse them in bacteriologically active water, and let the water and microbes further clean them.  After that we will chemically clean them and then we can begin the rearticulation process.

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