There, buried under a patch of overgrown weeds, the body is reduced to a skeleton through the voracious action of worms and beetles. In a year or so, becomes part of a unique bone collection used to teach anatomy to Cape Cod school children and summer day campers at the Massachusetts Audubon Societys most seaward sanctuary. I hate to go into a classroom empty-handed, says Bob Prescott, director of the sanctuary, expressing the sentiment behind the bone collection.
If you cant bring in a whale, at least you can bring in part of it. As part of the larger mission of Massachusetts Audubon to educate the public about natural history and environmental issues, the bone collection is one of the sanctuarys many educational tools. But it is one that sanctuary naturalists and day camp teachers use consistently in Audubon programs, summer day camp, and winter school visits.A program this summer for kindergarten and first graders, for example, focused on meat and plant-eating animals one day.
Day campers examine a beer skull at the Wellfleet sanctuary.
Talking about teeth
Gathered around a picnic table under the pitch pines and locust trees, the children talked about what kind of teeth would be necessary to catch a rabbit or chew leaves. The teacher then took a bears skull out of a box and pointed to the sharp canines used to catch and tear the meat and the grinders that chew it up. A deer skull then revealed a mouthful of chewing molars to handle the leaves.
During the winter, naturalists from the sanctuary visit schools throughout the Cape.Don Reid, assistant curator of the collection, seldom travels without his bones.
Lot of times I leave bones down in the lobby and give the kids one week to figure them out, he said. Kids are attracted to hands-on stuff; its a great way to open discussion.
Year round, naturalists run natural history programs and often calling on the service of those animals whose last resting place is a neatly arranged shelf in the basement. The journey to that shelf was neither quick, nor pretty.
Take one day three years ago, when a humpback whale washed up dead on Jeremy Point in Wellfleet. Prescott donned his whale clothes that reek with the inextinguishable evidence of previous bone-hunting expeditions. Four of us dragged Don [Reid] out there to take the animal apart, Prescott recalled recently. It was kind of gruesome taking off the flesh and joking about lunch. This was an animal that died in November, and we took it apart in June.
Reid remembers well his introduction to the art of marine mammal salvaging: It was my first week on the job and I found myself standing in the belly of a dead humpback whale pulling the bones out.
Prescotts crew hauled the whale back to the bone-yard, which lies next to the barn nestled up against the woods. When Prescott took over the directorship ten years ago, the bone-yard was a garden like any other, producing broccoli, tomatoes, and beans.
Now, Prescott said, instead of putting a fish under each plant, we put a seal. Its great to put animals under the garden, it grows real well.
Today the plot produces the ossified tools of education. Beneath the rising shoots of wild mustard and horseweed, rest two white-sided dolphins, leatherback and loggerhead sea turtle parts, a swan, and a harbor seal that was recently dissected for a sixth- to ninth-grade day camp class. Once, Prescott said, at least partly joking, he had even considered digging up his late dog, Ralph, at another location for the betterment of the collection.
After the bone-yards denizens of beetles and worms work their magic, Prescott and Reid exhume their prize and let it bleach in the sun for six months, after which the bones are sometimes lacquered. The collection now includes hundreds of bones, skulls, and preserved animals from all groups: rodents, bears, wolverines, deer, rabbits, cats, foxes, birds, apes, whales, seals, sea turtles, snapping turtles, goosefish, and a plastic human skeleton used for comparison with other animal structures.
I would say as far as marine mammals are concerned, no other institution on the Cape or other sanctuaries have this many bones lying around, Reid said. It's a substantial collection, no doubt about it.
Greg Early, associate curator of animal care at the New England Aquarium, said, Wellfleet is the best place as far as diversity and number of animals coming in. I cant think of another place in the world.
The reasons for such largesse, according to David Carlson, a director and staff biologist of Cape Marine Animal Rescue and Conservation, Inc., a non-profit based in Brewster that specializes in marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation, is that were located in the middle of a temperate ocean, and we stick out into that ocean and intercept north-south migrations.
Scientists also say that rich fisheries such as Georges and Stellwagen banks attract marine mammals to the area. Sea turtles, too, come north in the summer to feed in Cape Cod Bay. Then, for reasons scientists cannot quite explain, many of the animals become stranded.
Because of the frequency and diversity of the strandings, the carcasses and bones collected by the Wellfleet crew are in great demand. Prescott ships off the bone-yards work as well as frozen, intact animals to universities across Massachusetts as well as the New England Aquarium.
Students rarely see these things, so we should make them available to universities, Prescott says. Were willing to trade bones if people let us know they want something.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits most people from even touching a stranded marine mammal let alone trading its bones, but institutions like the sanctuary are issued federal and state permits allowing them to own and transport marine mammal and endangered species parts.
While the collection is relatively complete, the future may hold further work for the bone-yard.
We have a nice collection of mammals and raptors, says Prescott. Id really like to have a good leatherback skull, which is hard to get because they are so oily, and beetles dont eat them well.
Also this month, the sanctuary will begin construction on a new $1.6-million visitor center. Reid said he would like to see a complete whale assembled, and hopes to start a junior naturalist club to help build such a skeleton.