The public only gets to see a carefully curated version of the collections at The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
Hidden from view, there’s a second museum, much more sprawling in scope, full of character and occasionally gross.
No place is more hidden than the so-called Whale Warehouse.
This nondescript building is home to thousands and thousands of specimens that are too big to fit on the shelves in the museum’s Mammalogy Department at the main campus.
The result is a macabre and odiferous private monument to the diversity of mammalian life on Earth.
Jim Dines, the mammalogy collections manager for the museum, is in charge of maintaining the sprawling collection and expanding it.
Officially, it's the Marine Mammal Laboratory, but the museum staff call it the Whale Warehouse after its biggest residents.
Six miles away from the museum’s main campus, the warehouse is smack in the middle of Vernon, a city that proudly markets itself as “Exclusively Industrial.” Its neighbors are a wholesale distributor of 99-cent goods and the Farmer John meatpacking plant.
The warehouse is home to all kinds of mammals, the branch of the animal kingdom with the capacity to grow the largest. The blue whale skull that covers a wide swath of the warehouse floor is the largest natural thing in the museum’s entire collection.
The collection is meticulously organized by catalog number from primitive to advanced. That system begins with monotremes, the most ancient mammals, and works its way up to human beings.
The museum is especially important for its collection of marine mammals, which trails only the Smithsonian Institution in size.
They have more than 4,000 dolphin skulls in the collection, and they use those skeletons to build exhaustive matrices that compare the nuances of dolphin characteristics and how they change over time.
The museum is part of the national Marine Mammal Stranding Network. If a dead marine mammal washes up on the shore in Los Angeles or Orange counties, curatorial assistant David Janiger will get a call.
He retrieves the animal if it’s still intact and brings it back to the warehouse where he measures the whale or dolphin and remove its head for cleaning and archiving.
He sends off the animal’s stomach contents, reproductive parts and other samples to a lab for analysis.
“That’s our job, is to archive it for future research,” Janiger said.
These huge matrices allow scientists to spot trends in species, sub-species or populations.
John Heyning spearheaded the effort to grow the warehouse’s dolphin collection over the years. Along with William Perrin, a marine biologist at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, he used the collection to settle a dispute about common dolphins, the most populous species off the California coast.
Their research in the mid-'90s divided the common dolphin into two species, a long-beaked variety and a short-beaked one.
Heyning passed away in 2007 at the age of 50.
There are still big unanswered questions about how marine mammals are reacting to warming oceans. Migration patterns and species traits are changing, Dines said.
Sometimes here in California, hundreds of animals die off in large-scale demoic acid episodes when the water suddenly becomes poison for reasons that are not totally known.
“It’s sad that these animals die but part of what we do is try to figure out what’s causing them to die which helps inform the give authorities that are making polices,” Dines said. “That might help save a species.”
Selected Video CLIPS from
Special Thanks To