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NC Nature Research Center features 'an icon,' Stumpy the whale

Posted March 9, 2012 1:55 p.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2012 6:20 p.m. EST

— The new Nature Research Center at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences opens April 20 in downtown Raleigh and will feature a 50-foot-long whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling. “Stumpy,” as she is known, is no ordinary whale.

Lisa Gatens, a mammologist at the museum, says Stumpy is “an icon for the species.” She was a northern right whale, a critically endangered species. Scientists tracked her for decades, until she was found dead near Nags Head in 2004. They believe a ship struck her.

Museum visitors can see the whale’s nose cracked in two and her full-term fetus, which was also killed, still inside Stumpy’s skeleton.

“It's incredibly sad,” Gatens said. “There's this notion that scientists do not become emotionally involved or attached to the animals. That actually isn't the case at all.”

Stumpy might not have died in vain. A researcher used Stumpy's skeleton to study what kind of force it took to break a whale's bones. Those findings led to laws forcing big ships to slow down in right whale habitats.

“It had an immediate, positive effect,” Gatens said.

A ship has killed only one whale in the three years since the law was enacted. Last spring, whale researchers in Maine reconstructed Stumpy’s bones and sent them to Raleigh. Gatens says she hopes Stumpy will serve as a stark reminder of what can happen to whales.

“We can't conceive of what the loss of a species is until after it’s gone,” she said.

Along with Stumpy, the Nature Research Center will showcase labs and exhibits in all fields of science.