The whale’s way

This blog entry allows a very visual insight into our conservation progress.

Following condition assessing and documenting the cetacean specimens, treatment plans were made (see previous blog ‘Treatment decisions, decisions, decisions‘). Hands-on conservation commenced with dry cleaning the specimens one by one, to remove over 100 years worth of accumulated dust. This was followed by the second treatment phase focusing on addressing degraded oil residues formed on the surface of the bones.
Along the way, a few discoveries were made…

1) Removing layers of dust with a vacuum and brush

Vacuuming Bottle-Nose Whale vertebrae

Vacuuming the Northern Bottlenose Whale vertebrae (Hyperoodon ampullatus (Forster, 1770))

2)    Reducing degraded oil residues on bone surfaces with an ammonia solution

Treating the Beluga Whale’s ribcage with ammonia from within/ treated area of Bottle-nose Whale sternum

Treating the Beluga Whale’s (Delphinapterus leucas (Pallas, 1776)) ribcage with ammonia / treated area of Northern Bottlenose Whale sternum

Northern Bottle-Nose Whale's (Hyperoodon ampullatus, (Forster, 1770)) oil soaked skull versus treated vertebrae

Northern Bottle-Nose Whale’s oil soaked skull versus treated vertebrae

Beluga Whale vertebrae before and after ammonia treatment

Beluga Whale vertebrae before (showing water marks) and after ammonia treatment

3 Reducing degraded oil residues on cartilage/bone areas

Bottle-Nose Dolphin fin before and after ethanol/ammonia treatment

Detached Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus Montagu, 1821) fin before and after ethanol/ammonia treatment

4 Removing miscellaneous foreign matter 

Giving the Killer Whale a dental check-up (swabbing with ethanol)

Giving the Killer Whale (Orcinus orca (Linnaeus, 1758)) a dental check-up (incl. swabbing with ethanol)

Old piece of cotton wool in Killer Whale skull cavity (undated)

Old piece of cotton wool in Killer Whale’s skull cavity, suggesting previous unrecorded treatment

5 Discoveries made during treatment

Pencil figure ‘3’ on 3rd chevron of Dolphin (undated)

Pencil figure ‘3’ on 3rd chevron of Bottlenose Dolphin (undated curator’s mark?)

First edition catalogue label ‘1673’ on rib of Killer Whale (Orcinus Orca, (Linnaeus, 1758))

First edition catalogue label ‘1673’ on rib of Killer Whale

Early (honest) treatment evaluation

While we are finding that oils on the bone surface are efficiently being solubilised by treatment with ammonia, we do not know how far the solution penetrates the bone and how much it facilitates a migration of oil from the core to the surface. It is difficult to judge to what extent treatment removes the currently degraded oil residues on the surface, without actively drawing out oil from the bone matrix. In some treated areas the bone surface takes on an orange tint, suggesting un-oxidised oils have indeed been drawn to the surface. Unfortunately at this stage, and without further analysis, it is difficult to predict the level of remaining oil in the bone and how distant in the future the cetacean specimens may require re-treatment.

While this phase of the cetaceans’ treatment is physically demanding (exasperated by working in Tyvek suits during a heatwave), and repetitive given that the project involves five large, suspended cetacean skeletons, the work is nevertheless rewarding. We’ve each adopted our own whale family members, who are affectionately seen through a new chapter in their museum lives.

Join us again for our next blog entry, where we will share images from our ‘bone rearticulation workshop’…

Gemma Aboe, Assistant Conservator

Follow your [Bottle]nose [Whale]!

Conservation intern, Nicola Crompton, recently joined the team after graduating from the BA Conservation and Restoration degree at Lincoln University. It was there an enthusiasm for organic materials was sparked, which led to undertaking a placement at Cambridge University Museum of Zoology.

Nicola condition assessing Northern Bottlenose Whale

Nicola condition assessing Northern Bottlenose Whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus (Forster, 1770))

Delighted at the opportunity to gain post-qualification conservation experience, Nicola has quickly settled in with the whale family and is making great progress conserving the Northern Bottlenose Whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus (Forster, 1770)), a particularly odorous, oil soaked specimen.

Nicola working on Northern Bottlenose Whale

Nicola working inch by inch on Northern Bottlenose Whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus (Forster, 1770))

While we, the whale team are not too popular in the tea room, with the aroma of rancid oil and ammonia clinging to our Tyvek suits, we present an intriguing spectacle to our museum visitors and luckily the odour doesn’t follow us home!

Gemma Aboe, Assistant Conservator

Treatment decisions, decisions, decisions

Our conservation work is driven by the date at which the museum scaffolding is scheduled to be de-assembled, in preparation for the museum reopening in early 2014. This limited period of time plays its part in our choices, regarding preparatory research, scientific analysis, decision making and ultimately the conservation treatment.

We are very thankful to national and international fellow conservators and scientists, who have kindly shared their experiences, research and techniques working on similar materials. This generosity has allowed us to streamline our own treatment decisions.

Whales suspended in scaffolding tunnel (photo Michael Peckett)

Whales suspended in (incomplete) scaffolding tunnel (photo Michael Peckett)

Treatment criteria
To ensure ethical conservation treatment, a number of issues are given consideration.

Our specimens have been assessed for the risks they may have been exposed to in the past, but also those they may face in the future e.g. through continued display. Treatment must aim not only to address existing damage, but also to best protect the specimens from envisaged risks, where these cannot be eliminated (such as high light exposure and unstable environmental conditions).

Throughout our treatment, we aim to use materials and methods which will prolong the survival of the cetacean specimens and where appropriate offer detection and reversibility of our interventions, should the collection’s values or needs change in the future. Before reaching a final decision on treatment choices, the treatment itself is risk assessed, and potential risk management strategies are put in place.

Treatment aims and objectives
Following condition assessments of our cetacean specimens (see blog entry ‘Not so extra-virgin whale oil’), we composed a list of treatment options. These are placed in a table grouped by priority and likely sequence of treatment, though some actions may overlap.


Evaluation of treatment tests
Given that our first priority is to attempt degreasing of the bone surfaces (removing oil residues and trapped dust), we undertook treatment tests following recommendations from conservators at the University Museum of Bergen (Turner-Walker 2012).

Spot-tests were carried out with both polar and non-polar solvents, whereby a solvent was applied to the bone with a toothbrush, the oil saturated surface gently scrubbed, before residues were wiped off the bone with a woven cloth.

Northern Bottlenose Whale degreasing tests

Northern Bottlenose Whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus (Forster, 1770)) degreasing tests

Echoing results achieved in Bergen, we found that non-polar solvents, such as turpentine did not achieve removal of degraded oil residues (since oxidised and cross-linked oil degradation products are thought to be mainly polar) (Turner-Walker 2012). Polar solvents, e.g. ethanol helped to remove the most upper layer of oil stained and dust saturated surface areas, however did not achieve satisfactory reduction in oil degradation residues.

Further recommended testing involved applying a 5%v/v ammonia solution in deionised water to the oily bone surface by the above mentioned method. A process of oil saponification was achieved, producing a soluble soap scum, which could be wiped from the surface. Encouragingly, this method (using a low ammonia percentage) proved to be very effective in reducing the oil degradation products on the whale bone surfaces tested.

Minke Whale degreasing tests

Minke Whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata Lacépède, 1804) degreasing tests

In areas where oil soaked dust is engrained in the bone surface (despite vacuuming), we found toothbrush scrubbing the surface initially with ethanol helped to remove engrained surface dust. Followed by treatment with ammonia, the oily scum residues could be wiped off or wet vacuumed away.

Assessing the use of ammonia to degrease bone surfaces
Following successful treatment tests using ammonia, the treatment of choice is assessed, based on its justifiability and associated risks.

Can it be justified?
Given the variety in condition and cartilage preservation of our cetacean skeletons, it is our preference to treat the bone in situ with aqueous ammonia. This allows specific areas to be targeted, (rather than indiscriminately submerging them in a degreasing solution of choice). Visual and pH treatment tests showed limited ammonia application is non-detrimental to the bone, and indicated the method to be efficient in terms of cost, time and ease of use.

Nicola working on whales in protective gear

Nicola working on whale in protective gear

What are the risks to the conservators and specimens?
Ammonia is hazardous to humans (corrosive/toxic vapours). To avoid health implications, conservators are to wear protective equipment (including vapour masks) and work in a ventilated space. Exposure periods are interspersed with regular breaks and accidental splash contact areas are rinsed with water (e.g. eye wash station).

The risk of over-wetting the bone is avoided by working in small areas at a time, applying aqueous ammonia by brush (not directly on bone), followed by prompt wiping clean/wet vacuum suction of the worked surface area. The treated area may be further dried by wiping the surface with ethanol.

To try avoid abrasion of the bone surface during treatment, soft bristle toothbrushes or woven wipes are used, allowing pressure to be adjusted. Should detrimental effects be noticed, treatment is to be discontinued in the affected area. Areas of visibly weak or delaminating bone are not to be treated.

The risk of aqueous ammonia (alkali) swelling or weakening cartilage structures, suggests exposure to ammonia in these areas ought to be limited/avoided. Following contact with ammonia, cartilage areas may benefit from wiping with a cloth dampened with a deionised water/ethanol solution to remove alkali residues.

Do keep an eye out for our next conservation blog entry, where we will present our first treatment in progress images!

Further readings:

  • Turner-Walker, G. 2012. The removal of fatty residues from a collection of historic whale skeletons in Bergen: An aqueous approach to degreasing. In proceedings of: La conservation des squelettes gras: méthodes de dégraissage, At Nantes, France

Gemma Aboe, Assistant Conservator
Reviewed by Bethany Palumbo, Conservator of Life Sciences

We are not alone and not the first!

Review of whale bone de-fleshing and de-greasing case studies
In this blog entry we briefly reflect on skeleton preparation techniques, to gain an insight into how our cetacean skeletons may have been initially prepared, what effect these methods may have had on the current condition and if lessons for treatment can be gained. Following this we present three case studies on how other institutions have attempted to degrease whale bones. Their success and relevance to our cetacean specimens may help to shape our treatment decisions.

Woodcut from 1574, showing men flensing a whale (Hull Museums)

Woodcut from 1574, showing men flensing a whale (Hull Museums)

Possible de-fleshing knife incision evidence on  Bottlenose Whale processes

Possible de-fleshing (knife incision) evidence on Northern Bottlenose Whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus (Forster, 1770)) processes

We found two main methods historically employed to de-flesh skeletons for museum display or handling purposes. Our specimens vary considerably, in that some are more oil-rich than others, while the survival of cartilage on fins and vertebrae disks also differs. This would suggest that the specimens were prepared by different methods or individuals. De-fleshing involves first mechanically removing larger pieces of flesh, followed by methods including maceration or the use of dermestid beetles.

Pectoral fin on Lesser Rorqual Whale showing no cartilage remaining

Pectoral fin on Minke Whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata Lacépède, 1804) showing no cartilage remaining

Warm water maceration
This technique involves placing whale skeleton components in (warm) water tanks (encouraging bacteria development) over several months, occasionally changing the water baths in an effort to clean and degrease the bones, aided by bacteria action (which break protein bonds by releasing proteases). While the Smithsonian Institution found this method to be effective to some extent (during the 1980s and ‘90s), they consequently found lipids accumulating and strongly adhering to the bone surface following maceration (Ososky 2012). Warm water maceration may be risky, as it can potentially dissolve cartilage and any unfused bone.

Cartilage remaining on Beluga Whale’s scapula/pectoral fin joint

Cartilage remaining on Beluga Whale’s (Delphinapterus leucas Pallas, 1776) scapula/pectoral fin joint

Dermestid beetles
Encasing the whale bones in a warm, humid ‘bug chamber’ with scavenging dermestid beetles (though considered a museum pest), used to be a popular practice at the Smithsonian Institution (True, 1892) and is still a common method for removing flesh from bones. The rapid cleaning technique is sometimes followed by immersion of the bones in an  ammonia solution (e.g. 3%), before drying the specimens (Ososky 2012). If timed right, it is possible to preserve the cartilage and ligaments with this method, as the beetles will consume these harder protein-rich areas last.

De-greasing methods
While researching how to de-grease our whales, we came across a number of treatment methods which have been tested and applied by other Natural History museums. Our review focuses on techniques using enzymes, various solvents and aqueous ammonia.

Enzymatic degreasing bath at Beaty Biodiversity Museum, 2009

Enzymatic degreasing bath at Beaty Biodiversity Museum, 2009

Research carried out by the Natural History Museum of Nantes in 2012, aimed to test the efficiency of enzymatic degreasing of whale bones (Balaenoptera physalus), using commercial lipase products e.g. Lipase DF15 (Poisson et al. 2012). These enzymes are designed to catalyse esterification* of free fatty acids, (mainly found to be oleic acid and palmitic acid), to essentially reverse the degradative hydrolysis reaction. *Esterification converts an acid (harmful to the bone) into a (less harmful) ester and water, by combination with an alcohol, e.g. ethanol (through a condensation reaction). After incubating bone samples for 72h however, the enzymatic degreasing achieved, was limited. While oils on the bone surface were efficiently solubilised, the enzyme did not penetrate the bone and thus did not facilitate a migration of oil from the core to the surface (Poisson et al. 2012).

Degreasing effect achieved after swabbing bone surface with ethanol (Turner-Walker 2012)

Dust reduction and degreasing effect achieved after repeated swabbing of bone surface with ethanol (Turner-Walker 2012)

Organic solvents
Test-cleaning of oily historic whale skeletons at the University Museum of Bergen was carried out using paper poultices wetted with organic solvents in 2012 (Turner-Walker 2012). Intuitively oils were expected to be soluble in non-polar solvents (incl. cyclohexane, xylene, toluene and methyl chloride), these however proved ineffective. Instead, polar solvents (incl. acetone, isopropyl alcohol and ethanol) had an improved cleaning effect. This is explained by the transformation of unoxidised oils to oxidation degradation products and cross-linked oil films on the bone surfaces, which themselves are polar (Turner-Walker 2012).

Aqueous ammonia
Researchers at the University Museum of Bergen then proceeded to test clean whale bones using a 25% solution of ammonia, brushed onto the surface with water, before removing foam residues with a wet vacuum-cleaner. This method proved very successful at degreasing bone surfaces (Turner-Walker 2012). Ammonia, being an aqueous alkali, is capable of breaking ester molecule groups in fats into their glycerol and fatty acid elements, producing sodium or potassium salts (soluble soaps) via saponification (Mills and White 1999). The foam may be wiped from the surface, while excess ammonia off-gases and low-molecular ammonium salts are expected to leave the bone structure via sublimation (Turner-Walker 2012).

Radius and ulna of Humpback Whale during aqueous ammonia cleaning (Turner-Walker 2012)

Radius and ulna of Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae (Borowski, 1781)) during aqueous ammonia cleaning (Turner-Walker 2012)

Please watch out for our next conservation blog entry in which we will present our treatment criteria and results of our own degreasing tests.

Further readings:

Gemma Aboe, Assistant Conservator