Paul Haeder, Author

writing, interviews, editing, blogging

Oregon State University’s Hatfield scientist who is an expert in stripping flesh and muscle into beautiful skeletons speaks to local group of whale naturalists

Note: A very short piece coming from me today? WTF?

Yah! I write about this fellow because he has been a part of curriculum development and delivering education — hands on — for many many years. We’re talking about 40 years, almost.

Bill Hanshumaker, a senior instructor at the Hatfield Marine Science Centerand chief scientist for Oregon Sea Grant.

So, even four years back, Bill was working on jellyfish explosions in these parts — Central Oregon Coast. Explosions of jelly fish, hmm, not good:

Striking blue sea creatures, Velella velella, have washed up by the thousands on Oregon beaches including at Seaside, Manzanita, Astoria and Rockaway Beach in recent days, tourism officials report.
The small jellyfish-like animals normally live out at sea, floating on its surface. But every spring, thousands get blown by strong westerly winds onto the sands of Oregon, California and Washington and die.

When strong westerly winds blow over the Pacific coastline, Velella velella are swept by the thousands onto beaches including those at Seaside and Manzanita. They are often called By-the-wind Sailors, because they have their own small sails and move with the wind.

I write A LOT about education, how broken it is at PK12 level (come on, that’s the lifeblood of development, not college and universities).

“Poverty, injustice, and reading comprehension issues go hand in hand,” 
― D. Watkins, The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America Here. DN.


Unfortunately, the youngest person to listen to Bill Saturday (April 20) was 40, maybe? Most were past retirement, a few in their fifties, me, 62, but still working, teaching PK12. The rest way into their 60s and 70s. This fellow has enthusiasm that is catching and how dare we as a society that we have these silos, man, and we have no will to get intergenerations together.

Here’s my piece, hoping it ends up in the Newport Times News, like this one: Experts paint sobering potential for sea change

Also here, Op Ed News. But here, the piece:

Lurking in Yaquina Bay: Blue Whale Ready for Articulation

The quietude of the Central Oregon Coast – sans the tourists/visitors – is an illusion when it comes to marine sciences and the remarkable gravitas OSU Hatfield Marine Sciences Center and Oregon Coast Aquarium have on researching the oceans and our discussions around the good, bad and ugly tied to them.

It’s not difficult to get 26 cetacean (whales, dolphins) and pinniped (seals, sea lions) adherents in a room at the Newport Library on a Saturday morning (April 20) to listen to one of OSU’s best talk about marine mammals and acoustic research,  Dermestids (or flesh-eating beetles) and the state of species in ever-changing meteorological and ecological conditions tied to our oceans.

The Oregon chapter of the American Cetacean Society invited Dr. Bill Hanshumaker to present his talk titled,  “How do we know what we think we know about marine mammals?” He brought skulls of whales, dolphins and sea lions; vertebrae of a blue whale; baleen from whales and teeth from orca and other toothed whales species; and decades of experience as a scientist.

The 67-year-old Hanshumaker is the CSI guy at the Hatfield; he’s given more than 50 public presentations, some of which included “cool stuff” like dissecting sharks at public gatherings and articulating skeletons of huge – the largest species in the world – blue whales.

Image result for whale bone articulations

“Science is a dynamic process, not stagnant,” Bill Hanshumaker said. “Most people look at science as a collection of facts or a belief system. It’s much more than that.” Of course, coming up with a hypothesis – sometimes referred to as WAG (wild-assed guess) – allows for testing it, looking for patterns and demonstrating a willingness to change course.

Part of changing course, according to the scientist, includes using new tools, or old ones, to go at a problem in a new way. Observation of whales performing actions and reacting to their environment is one good step toward making a WAG and then testing it. However, we need multiple tools and systems to conduct good science.

Hanshumaker, who was with OMSI for 17 years, highlighted that he is responsible for all those “articulated” skeletons throughout the Portland museum. His current work is on the way out, as he retires i a few month, but he brought to us work by Bob Dziak whose research with hydrophones determines many aspects of whale behavior tied to their own acoustic calls and language.

Killer whales in particular vocalize more when hunting salmon, tuna or sharks, because their prey aren’t hearing the sounds and the killer whales are probably communicating signals for the pod members to act in concert in getting at the food. When approaching marine mammals, stealth is more important, so that ecotype of killer whale will not vocalize when on the hunt.

It’s the mother who teaches killer whale offspring to go for salmon or go for seals.

Image result for orca whales in the wild
Image result for orca whales in the wild

He’s looking at all the noise – called ambient and background noise – in the ocean to determine what is natural and what can be adaptable. Toothed whales like orca and sperm whales have high frequency calls, whereas baleen whales like humpbacks and grays have lower pitched (frequency) calls.

Calls from blue whales may signal mating language rituals; however, the ship traffic in the oceans disturbs communication abilities, he stated, which includes breeding habits. When September 11, 2001 occurred, all ship traffic was halted, and previously placed hydrophones picked up more communication calls from blue whales, leading to the hypothesis they were using calls for mating.

The whale enthusiasts listened and watched the scientist explain sound propagation, cavitation noise (propeller sounds), and which methods of noise reduction will help whales and dolphins live in a less chaotic world of hundreds of thousands of ships crisscrossing their habitats daily.

Interestingly, OSU got the job of designing three new research vessels – with green technology incorporated, including noise reduction propellers that are more fuel efficient, Hanshumaker stated. The design also includes optimized hull form, waste heat recovery, LED lighting, and variable speed power generation.

The National Science Foundation selected Oregon State largely because of the university’s deep research history, active science programs and leadership through the Hatfield Marine Sciences Center. The current research vessel OSU uses, Oceanus, is almost 45 years old and has outlived its scientific capabilities.

Part of the research tied to acoustics is only possible through fully funding marine sciences programs to include these research vessels as floating laboratories and living classrooms. For instance, studying acoustic recordings in the wild can tell scientists how different ecotypes of one species have much different “dialects” versus other ecotypes. Humpback whales, like other species, have different dialects so when groups congregate, differentiation lowers chances of inbreeding: which is the bane of all species collapsing.

Our Central Oregon Coast is mostly visited upon (90 percent of whales) by the iconic gray whale, which is a marine animal success story, compared to the Atlantic coast where the grays were hunted to extinction. One reason for Pacific grays’ success is that the Mexican government designated three significant breading and calving bays along the Baja peninsula as protected gray whale reserves.

One example (of many) illustrating “genetic bottlenecks” is the elephant seal along the California coast. “In 1910 they thought it was extinct, so a scientist shot what he thought were the last surviving eight,” Hanshumaker said. The reality was there were still elephant seals living in secluded habitats, but unfortunately, the diversity pool is now so limited that all offspring are identical twins.

Interesting topics he brought up included stripping marine mammal carcasses of muscle and meat, while still preserving connective tissue and even the smallest bones with those beetles. Hanshumaker says anew, quicker way has been developed:  horse manure compost pits are dug and the carcass covered so all bugs, bacteria and larvae can work in concert to do the job beetles and fly maggots do.

For Hanshumaker – like most holistic-thinking scientists I’ve interviewed over the course of almost four and a half decades – he posits all things connect in nature. I use this John Muir quote to illustrate that for students I teach:

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

When we see an otter around here, we have to be reminded it’s a river otter, since marine otters no longer inhabit Washington and Oregon waters. In fact, in the Aleutian Islands, sea otters were wiped out by a pod of killer whales. No sea otter in a habitat means sea urchin populations explode. Which in turn destroy bull kelp forests since urchins eat kelp and otters each urchins. Those kelp habitats are like sea nurseries for hundreds of fish species. Fewer places for juvenile fish to grow protected means less fish in nets and on hooks.

“Fishermen do not want sea otters returned because they see them as competitors, eating fish. Kelp beds will help increase the numbers of fish,” Hanshumaker stated, Science and data and field evidence are not enough to stop “fishermen believing what they want to believe.”

The irony is kelp needs rocky areas to anchor and root into. Trying to reintroduce kelp and marine otters would be fruitless since those rocky bottom “holds” are now covered up with sand years after the kelp forests’ disappearance.

Image result for whale bone articulations Hatfield Oregon

Back to the whale lurking in a net in Yaquina Bay: It was struck by a ship, it’s 80 feet long, and it’s been at the bottom of the bay with a net around it going on three years. Hanshumaker says there is still flesh on the carcass. Plans for this scientist to get the bones stripped of all flesh and then articulated as one skeleton are on hold because the marine sciences classroom that is being built at Hatfield has new architectural plans that will not accommodate the blue whale to hang anywhere.

Image result for whale bone articulations Hatfield Oregon

The Siletz casino in Lincoln City doesn’t want the skeleton, he stated. The scientist thinks the Lincoln County fairgrounds building will be the skeleton’s final resting place.

Image result for hanging skeleton articulation Hatfield Marine Sciences
Bruce Mate of Oregon State University is seen with a Minke Whale skeleton on campus. Blue Whale in Central Oregon he’s working on.

Who knows where this CSI scientist will end up since he is retiring from OSU this year. There’s no doubt about it though, Bill will be right there if another big animal washes ashore. The amount of institutional (science) memory he will take with him is a whole other article about where the sciences are heading as Baby Boomers retire.

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