Hope is the thing with baleen: lessons from a museum specimen

The first talk in the Life and Environment seminar series was by Dr Natalie Cooper from the Natural History Museum in London.

About the stranding

Over 100 years ago, a blue whale stranded in Wexford. She was found by a fisherman called Edward Wickham, and later bought by the Natural History Museum. She was  More information on the stranding can be found here.

The Museum staff later called her Hope, and in 2015 she replaced Dippy the dinosaur in Hintze Hall. Previously, her skeleton was in the Mammals Hall for 81 years.

Dr Natalie Cooper started working with Hope in 2015. Since then, it has been discovered that Hope stranded when she was 15 years old, and may have had a calf towards the end of her life. The team discovered this using stable isotope analysis.

Hope the blue whale in Hintze Hall

Photo description: Hope on display in Hintze Hall. ©Natural History Museum

Stable isotope analysis 

A few people suggested that Natalie use stable isotope analysis in order to find out more about Hope’s life.

The analysis has involved examining the proportions of carbon-12 (C-12) and carbon-13 (C-13) in Hope’s baleen plates. These plates grow constantly throughout a whale’s life, and are mode of keratin.

The data from Hope’s baleen starts when she was 7 years old. When she was young, there was a high proportion of carbon-13. This suggests that she was in warm waters. As she moved north to winter feeding grounds, the proportion of C-13 decreased. In her later years, the proportion of C-13 increased and showed little variation. This suggests that Hope was possibly pregnant and lactating during that time.

Thoughts on the talk

I found Natalie’s talk very engaging, and her enthusiasm for the subject was clear. She explained carbon dating well, which can be a hard thing to achieve.

Having volunteered at the Natural History Museum in London and with cetaceans before, I was interested to see how to combine the two. Museum-based careers appeal to me as they seem to have a good mix of research, fieldwork, working indoors and public engagement.


2 thoughts on “Hope is the thing with baleen: lessons from a museum specimen

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