By Sarah Boessenecker (@tetrameryx)
Happy Fossil Friday!
After a long and fascinating journey, our cast of Dorudon atrox, affectionately named ‘Manaia’ has finally reached her final resting place in the Addlestone Library, after being hung in the rotunda to watch over students studying. Dorudon is a basilosaurid whale – an early ancestor to mysticete (baleen) and odontocete (toothed) whales and is found in Eocene aged (~56-34 million years old) rocks. With a total length of ~5 meters, Dorudon was one of the smallest basilosaurids, but still a fearsome predator of shallow seas.
Would you like to hear more about Manaia’s travels, and how she came to be here? Read on!
It all starts in San Francisco, where this cast was originally displayed in the flagship Discovery Channel Store. The store was shutting down and needed this whale out – and soon. The store manager reached out to California Academy of Sciences where Dr. Douglas J. Long worked to see if he wanted the skeleton. He did – but it needed to be gone the following day! The skeleton was collected (no easy feat – it’s quite heavy!) and transported to Cal Academy. However, issues immediately arose; the Exhibits Department did not want the skeleton, the Earth Sciences curator did not want it for the Paleontology Collections since it was a cast, and the Mammalogy and Ornithology collections (where Doug was curator) didn’t have room for it either. It sat for months in limbo (and in the way) before Doug came up with the idea to offer it to St. Mary’s College of California where he also lectured in Biology – the dean there was also a vertebrate paleontologist, and thought it would be great to be suspended in the 3 story spiral staircase of the brand new sciences building. Problem solved!
However, it didn’t quite work out that way. Unforeseen circumstances blocked the way, and funding to install and hang the skeleton went awry; the skeleton was back in limbo (and still in the way).
Doug was put into an uncomfortable position – as he was the one who arranged to get the whale from the Discovery Channel Store, the onus to fix this “problem” was on him. Luckily, Doug had another idea – he had just built a 27’ Tiki Shack in his backyard, and there was ample space in the rafters for just such a thing! He enlisted the help of a couple of friends, they mounted the skeleton finally in the rafters, named her “Manaia” for the Māori creature that served as a messenger between the land of the living and dead, and she stood guard over hundreds of bottles of rum for 15 years.
As Robert Frost once wrote, “Nothing gold can stay,” and Manaia was once again about to be in limbo – in early 2019 Doug had taken a new job in Southern California and was faced with the dilemma of what to do with this whale. Fortunately, he and our very own Dr. Robert Boessenecker had a friendship and history together involving study of California fossil bearing localities for over a decade – and Doug reached out to Dr. Boessenecker, knowing he is a “whaleontologist” and thought it might be something he would like to have for the museum!
Excited about this idea, Dr. Boessenecker leapt at the chance to get such a wonderful creature for the museum to display – after all, Dorudon was first discovered and described from South Carolina, so what could be better than our very own mount?
There was a catch though – Doug was moving soon and needed the whale gone sooner (this seems to be a trend) – and in California. Doug wanted to give it to the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History for free – we just needed to cover the cost of shipping. Dr. Boessenecker knew he wanted this for the museum – but how would the cost of shipping be covered?
Mace Brown (namesake of the museum, and the individual whose collection it started as before donating it all to the College of Charleston) also recognized the importance of the specimen and offered to cover the cost of shipping entirely. All Doug had to do was contact a shipping company and talk them into quickly building a crate and support to transport this beast across the country – no easy task!
Manaia arrived in February of 2019 amid much fanfare – Dr. Boessenecker and Collections Manager Sarah Boessenecker were eager for the crate to arrive – they weren’t sure quite what to expect. How would she arrive? Would she be in one piece, or would she have been rattled apart during the cross-country drive?
With the help of stockroom manager Dr. Phil Robinson, the Boesseneckers were able to move the MASSIVE crate inside to assess how to access the whale inside – it had been nailed together with hundreds of nails and involved hammers and crowbars to get inside. Luckily, the cross-country trek had not damaged Manaia at all – the only damages were from the initial crating back in California by the moving company. The Boesseneckers were ecstatic – until they had to think about how they were going to get Manaia from the stock room to the 2nd floor and into the collections room.
They wrangled up a handful of students to help – it was a tricky endeavor, as the skull and front end of Manaia was close to 250 lbs and there were no easy places to grab ahold of without risking breakage. They managed after an hour or so of assessing the best way – she couldn’t go up the stairs, but would she fit in the elevator? (She did, with just inches to spare) However, the wooden support she rested on would not – this meant the students and the Boesseneckers had to hold her without breaking her the ride up the elevator and walk her down the hall, while others grabbed the support and followed close behind so she had a place to rest without breaking (she couldn’t rest on her back or side directly without ribs and vertebral processes snapping).
Once safely in Collections, the Boesseneckers were able to evaluate the overall condition of Manaia, and work out a game-plan on which parts were broken, which were missing after all of the moves she went through, and which parts simply needed paint touch-ups. They began the long process of photogrammetry – taking a series of photographs to capture the likeness of an object from all angles that can then be used to build a 3D model that can be scaled to various sizes, or mirrored to replace parts that were missing entirely. After 3D printing the missing pieces, they were able to paint the plastic 3D prints to match the colors of the cast, and attach them to the skeleton. A few more paint touch-ups and puttying on the skeleton to get it into shape for mounting in the library, she needed a sponge bath – years of hanging in a tiki bar left her with quite the buildup of grime! With the help of museum docents and volunteers, she was in pristine condition, and ready for transport once again – TTS Studios was contracted to install Manaia in the Addlestone Library. They picked her up from the Collections room and gave her a quick ride to their studios to assess the cast for hanging purposes, make certain the armature connecting the parts was solid, and test the hang in their workshop. After they were satisfied and ready to go, Manaia was once again on the move – to her final home! The installation was surprisingly quick and painless, thanks to their expertise – and she looks wonderful, swimming through the Addlestone Library rotunda.
After a long journey (both time, work, and miles) Manaia had made it, and it is all thanks to Dr. Doug Long for donating the specimen, Dr. Boessenecker for helping to secure the donation, Mace Brown for funding her transit, CCNHM Curator Dr. Scott Persons for arranging the installation, TTS Studios for the installation, Dr. Tim Callahan for guidance and help with connecting us with the Libraries, our student volunteers/museum docents Addie Miller and Shelley Copeland for aid in cleaning and painting, and especially the CofC Libraries generosity, space, and funding for installation.
Go and visit her – free, and open to the public!