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Idaho Museum of Natural History assists in building digital model of blue whale skeleton

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POCATELLO — The skeleton of a massive blue whale that met a tragic end has been transformed into a digital model, with help from the Idaho Museum of Natural History in Pocatello.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, this project was a collaboration between the museum and the Noyo Center for Marine Science in Fort Bragg, California. It saw technicians from the Idaho Virtualization Laboratory (IVL) at the museum scan the whale’s skeleton from nose to tail. This is just the world’s second blue whale skeleton to be scanned in this way and the first in North America.

The scans were then turned into a high-resolution 3-D model which can be viewed here. It’s actually the highest-resolution scan of a blue whale skeleton in the world.

“It was a really massive project for us,” IVL manager Jesse Pruitt said in a news release. “Before this, we had scanned a humpback whale, but that is only about a third of the length of this animal. It wasn’t any more difficult than scanning anything else other than just moving the big parts around. It would be hard to top this. The only thing bigger we could scan would be a larger blue whale.”

The project blossomed from a tragedy that took place in 2009.

“(The whale) was tragically hit when she surfaced underneath a boat and then the back propeller of the boat sliced her spinal cord,” Noyo Center executive director Sheila Semans said in the release.

Washing ashore in a cove near Fort Bragg, the 25-meter-long (about 73 feet) animal required the efforts of some 200 volunteers to extract the whale from the cove.

“We actually had to enlist some of the heavy machine operators around here to help us pull the bones up the cliff,” Semans said. “You couldn’t carry much up out off the beach. It was quite a feat.”

From there, the whale was deboned and the bones were buried for four years to clean them. Once the clean bones were unearthed, they were stored with the intention of being reassembled for a display in a new Noyo facility in Fort Bragg.

Fortunately, the IVL was able to send Pruitt and technician Tim Gomes out to Noyo to scan the blue whale during a 15-day trip in 2019. Using the hand-held scanners they employ to scan animals that are too big to fit computerized tomography scan machines, Pruitt and Gomes scanned not only the Noyo blue whale, but also the world’s largest articulated orca skeleton, which is on display at the Noyo Discovery Center, and a grey whale that’s been mounted for display at MacKerricher State Park.

blue whale top resized
Courtesy Idaho Museum of Natural History

Scanning the whale was a mammoth undertaking requiring Pruitt and Gomes to scan some positively enormous bones. The whale’s skull measured eight feet wide by five feet long and required a rigging of ropes and bones to manipulate it while it was being scanned.

Then there were the lower jawbones.

“Those things are 15-feet long in their current state and it took quite an effort to move them,” Pruitt said. “They are really, really heavy, dense bones and they still have oil and grease in them from when the animal was alive.”

The efforts that went into digitizing this blue whale skeleton were part of a larger mission to digitally scan all vertebrate animals on the planet. It also puts the data and knowledge obtained through this project right at the fingertips of the public.

“The goal of this and all the data that we have online now is to have it freely available to the public with as few strings attached as possible,” said Pruitt. “Anybody can come and download it for any purpose they see fit.”

gomes pruitt skull bone
Courtesy Idaho Museum of Natural History
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