Roy Chapman Andrews, Whales Researcher
by AMNH on
In 1908, as an eager young assistant at the Museum, Roy Chapman Andrews got an opportunity that would transform his career as a field naturalist: a chance to travel the world studying whales.
Museum Trustee George S. Bowdoin had donated $10,000—about $250,000 today—for the study and collection of cetaceans, the group of marine mammals that includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises.
In later years, Andrews—who was the Director of the Museum from 1935 to 1942—would be best known for his 1920s fossil hunting expeditions to the Gobi Desert in Central Asia. (There, his team discovered many new mammal and dinosaur fossils, including the first nests of dinosaur eggs.)
But as a young man, he was first and foremost interested in whales–including beaked whales, an elusive group that comprises about a quarter of all whale species.
“There was never a more virgin field for an enthusiastic young naturalist,” Andrews would later write. Before the advent of whale hunting by steam-powered ships, starting in the late 1860s, researchers had no way to observe these fast-moving marine mammals in their native habitat. Even in the early 1900s, joining a whaling voyage was virtually the only way to study the animals while they were alive.
And so Bowdoin’s donation launched Andrews “on a career of blubber and brine which lasted for eight years and carried [him] twice around the world,” to whaling ships and stations in Canada, Alaska, Japan, and more.
But even during Andrews’ extensive travels he encountered no living beaked whales. The only evidence he observed of the existence of these mammals–which can reach 42 feet long and weigh thousands of pounds—was circumstantial and episodic. In 1910 in Japan, Andrews saw a photograph of a Baird’s beaked whale (Berardius bairdii), the largest of all beaked whales, proof that this rare species swam there, too, and not justoff the coast of Alaska as was thought. Once, later on, he was able to examine the skeleton of a beaked whale (Mesoplodon densirostris)that had beached along the shoreline of New Jersey.
Most surprising, it was at home, in the Museum’s own collections, that he discovered a new species of beaked whale. Found in 1904 in New Zealand, the skeleton of a small whale had been transported to the American Museum of Natural History.
Later, Andrews described the species in a paper; he named it Mesoplodon bowdoini, in honor of the trustee who funded his whale work.
Learn more about beaked whales in Whales: Giants of the Deep , now on view.
A version of this story appears in the Spring 2013 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.
Whales: Giants of the Deep was developed and presented by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. This exhibition was made possible through the support of the New Zealand Government.
The American Museum of Natural History gratefully acknowledges the Richard and Karen LeFrak Exhibition and Education Fund.
Generous support for Whales: Giants of the Deep has been provided by the Eileen P. Bernard Exhibition Fund.