I visited The University of British Columbia at Vancouver a few weeks ago, but couldn’t post my pictures until now. That’s because one of the subjects was embargoed until this week. That was the skeleton of a blue whale that was being prepared and installed in the university’s Beaty Biodiversity Center, adjacent to the biology department. It’s open for viewing now, and so I can show it.
The blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) is the largest animal (by body volume) that ever lived—larger than any dinosaur. Females can weigh up to 150 tons! (For comparison, that’s as heavy as 50 Hummers.) Because they’re so large and can provide so much oil, they were mercilessly slaughtered in the last century, and now only about 10,000 individuals are left.
A blue whale beached itself on Prince Edward Island twenty years ago, and, after it died, was promptly buried with bulldozers to reduce the stench. Decades later scientists unearthed the beast, and found that nearly the whole skeleton was intact. It was a remarkable specimen, and was installed hanging from the ceiling of the museum. Here, embargoed until today, is a photograph of the installation:
Notice that the vestigial pelvis and leg bones are missing. I asked the preparator (the guy up on the scaffold) if they had recovered them. He said, “Yes, indeed!” and fetched them from the back. (They were to be installed at the end.) I love vestigial pelvises of whales because they’re one of the most obvious and incontrovertible proofs of evolution. They let me pose with the bones; those white nubs pointing downward from the tips are the vestigial femurs:
My host at UBC was Dolph Schluter, who’s famous for his work on adaptation and evolution in stickleback fish. He managed to pry $3 million out of the Canadian government to build a series of experimental ponds, in which he studies selection and speciation in the two “morphs” of sticklebacks, benthic and limnetic. Here’s Dolph and his setup:
Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology, part of the University, is a hidden gem—one of the best museums of any sort I’ve been in. It’s a lovely building set on the coast with a background of sea, mountains, and conifers. The collection of northwestern native art is simply astounding, but there are artifacts, art, and clothing from cultures around the world. The totem poles are fantastic. Here’s some native art:
And since we’ve been discussing interspecific love, here’s a doll made for an Inuit child:
Here are Dolph and I at the Vancouver airport, demonstrating the very close link between evolution and atheism before catching a puddle-jumper to Portland. We traveled back to Chicago together because Dolph gave a seminar at Chicago the day after I left Vancouver. I was reading Victor Stenger’s The New Atheism on the plane, but then a priest sat next to me and, a coward, I put it away. It turned out that the priest was not a nice guy: he was brusque, unfriendly, and, when he had to visit the bathroom, simply looked at me and shouted, “I have to get up!”, expecting me to rise from my aisle seat let him past. No “please” and no “thank you”. I realized then that I’d always retained a sort of vestigial faitheism, assuming that anybody wearing a clerical collar would be nice and friendly simply by virtue of their overt faith. It was a shock to realize that priests could be as unpleasant as anyone else.
Finally, a note on the door of St. John’s College, where I stayed at UBC. Educational discrimination against chiropterans!