Marine mammals

Iziko S.A. Museum’s Marine Mammal Collection includes a comprehensive collection of cetacean and Cape fur seal skeletal material. Skeletal material from other marine mammals is also held. Part of this collection is on exhibition in the museum’s Whale Well.

Whales and Dolphins in Iziko S.A. Museum’s Marine Mammal Collection and Exhibition Area (Whale Well)

Humpbacked Whale with coronuline barnacles on the anterior (mouth), gular (throat) and fin areas---in Iziko S.A. Museum’s Whale Well

The cetaceans (whales and dolphins), are the largest and most diverse order of marine mammals and consist of two suborders, the Odontoceti (toothed whales) and the Mysteceti (baleen or rorqual whales), which are separated primarily on the basis of their feeding strategies and the morphological differences that characterize these.

Iziko’s Fossil Cetacean Collection

Iziko S.A. Museum’s palaeontological collection consists of 142 rostra as well as other fossilised cetacean remains, including cochleae, teeth and post cranial material. A few fragments exhibit cut marks, presumably from predation or scavenging by very large sharks, such as Megalodon.

Rostra get recovered because they occasionally get caught in bottom trawler fishing nets. They are difficult to identify beyond family grouping as the distinguishing morphological characteristics have usually been eroded away. Therefore, as yet, no definitive classification and systematisation studies have been made of the material in our collection. Recently, however, some tentative and preliminary attempts have been made to classify less eroded material into genera and results are eagerly awaited.

Rostra recovered in this manner are impossible to date, since no undisturbed geological context, exists, as is generally the case for terrestrial fossils. The rostra, as well as all other fossilised cetacean skeletal remains, have been eroded from their in situ geological context, and could quite possibly have undergone a series of exposures and coverings over millions of years, before finally being snagged in a modern day trawl net.

Iziko’s Extant (living species) Cetacean Collection

Coronuline barnacles on the gular region of the Humpbacked Whale cast in Iziko S.A. Museum’s Whale Well

This collection consists mainly of skeletal material and casts as well as a small wet collection of tissue and organ samples.

It is important to note that whales and dolphins are a protected species under South African law and may not be harmed or disturbed in any way. Material from our collections was obtained from three primary sources:

  1. From Fisheries when whaling was still legal. (Some of our oldest skeletons date from the early 1900’s)
  2. From the unfortunate death of mainly dolphins trapped in trawl nets or from whales that had become trapped in discarded or lost fishing gear such as hawsers and old nets.
  3. From strandings. The term ‘stranding’ is given to whales and dolphins that inexplicably beach themselves, as well as in a broader sense, any whale or dolphin that has died at sea and that has been subsequently washed ashore. The majority of the material in the collectionis from strandings.

List of Extant (living species) Cetaceans in Iziko S.A. Museum’s Marine Mammal Collection

The collection is reasonably large and covers a representative list of cetaceans of the world

Suborder Mysteceti

Family Balaenida (Right Whales)
Eubalaena australis Southern Right Whale

Family Neobalaenidae (Pygmy Right Whale)
Caperea marginata Pygmy Right Whale

Family Balaenopteridae
Balaenoptera musculus Blue Whale
Balaenoptera physalus Fin Whale
Balaenoptera borealis Sei Whale
Balaenoptera edeni Bryde’s Whale
Balaenoptera acutorostrata Minke Whale
Megaptera novaeangliae Humpback Whale

Suborder Odontoceti

Family Physeteridae (Sperm Whales)
Physeter catadon Sperm Whale
Kogia breviceps Pygmy Sperm Whale
Kogia simus Dwarf Sperm Whale

Family Monodontidae (White Whales)
Monodon monoceros Narwhal

Family Ziphiidae (Beaked Whales)
Tasmacetus shepherdi Shepherd’s beaked whale
Berardius arnuxii Arnoux’s beaked whale
Mesoplodon densirostris Blainville’s beaked whale
Mesoplodon layardii Layard’s beaked whale
Mesoplodon mirus True’s beaked whale
Ziphius cavirostris Cuvier’s beaked whale
Hyperoodon planifrons Southern bottlenose whale

Family Delphinidae (Dolphins and other small toothed whales)
Peponocephala electra Melon-headed whale
Feresa attenuata Pygmy Killer whale
Pseudorca crassidens False Killer whale
Orcinus orca Orca
Globicephala macrohynchus Short-finned Pilot whale
Globicephala melaena Long-finned Pilot whale
Steno? bredanensis Rough-toothed dolphin
Sousa teuszii Atlantic Humpback dolphin
Lagenorhynchus obscurus Dusky dolphin
Lagenodelphis hosei Fraser’s dolphin
Delphinus delphis Common dolphin
Tursiops truncatus Bottlenose dolphin
Grampus griseus Risso’s dolphin
Stenella coeruleoalba Striped dolphin
Cephalorhynchus heavisidii Heaviside’s dolphin
Cephalorhynchus hectori Hector’s dolphin
Cephalorhynchus commersonii Commersom’s dolphin

Articulated Whale and Dolphin Skeletons and Casts on Display

Complete coronuline barnacle (right) from a south-western Cape Later Stone Age shell midden and two fragments from the Middle Stone Age at Ysterfontein

A cast is a full size replica of the animal. This is achieved by first taking a mold of the beached whale or dolphin using either plaster-of-paris or glass fibre and resin. The mold is a negative impression, from which a positive impression or cast is then made. Since whales and dolphins are protected, the casts on display were made from stranded animals. However, in order to make the cast appear like a living replica of the whale or dolphin, the cast is re-shaped, modelled, where necessary and finally air-brushed to give it authentic colour. Great care is taken to ensure that the casts are morphologically correct, and the colours of the animals are faithfully reproduced. The result is the amazing life-like and beautiful collection of casts, which forms part of the exhibition in the Whale Well at Iziko S.A. Museum.

Articulated skeletons are skeletons that have been anatomically correctly re-assembled, the most impressive of which is the Blue Whale skeleton that forms the centre piece in the Whale Well. Below it are the mandibles of an even larger individual.

Articulated skeletons on display are of the Blue whale, Southern Right whale, Sperm whale and Pygmy Right whale.

Iziko S.A. Museum’s whale and dolphin exhibit includes 16 casts of whales and dolphins: Humpback Whale, Layard’s Beaked whale, Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, Orca or Killer Whale, Sperm Whale, Pilot Whale, Humpback Dolphin, Bottlenose Dolphin, Heaviside’s Dolphin, Common Dolphin, Dusky Dolphin, Spotted Dolphin, Striped Dolphin, Fraser’s Dolphin, Risso’s Dolphin and the Antarctic Dolphin.

Archaeological remains

Bones of whales and dolphins occur in small numbers in coastal archaeological sites, suggesting that they were at least occasionally scavenged from the beach and brought back; some are from small species and may have had blubber or meat attached, but others are large and may have served no useful purpose other than as supports for windbreaks and raw materials. Such material is housed in Iziko’s Social History collections.

On the southern and Skeleton Coast of Namibia, for instance, frames for huts were made of whale ribs and the longer cranial portions and drift wood (Kinahan and Kinahan, 1984). However, to all intents and purposes evidence for the use of whales as food is “invisible”, since bones in themselves are insufficient evidence for consumption of meat or blubber (Smith and Kinahan, 1984). Direct evidence that blubber, a rich food source, was deliberately brought back to campsites as far as 4 km inland has been the recognition in a number of coastal Later Stone Age shell midden sites of pelagic coronuline barnacles, which attach themselves to the skin of the larger whales, including Humpback, Southern Right and Fin whales. They are distinct in that they never attach themselves on rocky shores (Jerardino and Parkington, 1993). Examples can be seen on the humpback cast in Iziko S.A. Museum’s Whale Well.

By identifying the barnacles found in a number of west coast archaeological middens, it has been established that blubber and meat from stranded whales has been harvested from strandings over a very long period. Later Stone Age finds at Geelbek near Langebaan have been radiocarbon dated to 2900 B.P. (Kandel and Conard, 2003; A. Kandel, pers. comm.) and at Ysterfontein pelagic barnacles in a rock Shelter, with substantial shell middens indicate, not only that marine resources, particularly molluscs (limpets and mussels) were very important, but that whales were being utilized periodically during the Middle Stone Age, 60,000 years ago, or even earlier.