Osteo-Mysterioso: Carnegie’s Giant Mystery Bone

close-up of one end of the mystery bone spanning four shipping pallets, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, PA

Mystery bone, as close as we could get

Two immediate questions strike the nebby passer-by: What is it? and Why is it out here?

Around the back of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Oakland, between the entrance to the lecture hall and the pedestrian bridge-ramp to the parking deck behind the art museum, is a small, gated outdoor space that is clearly not meant for public inspection. The volume of people traffic on this walkway is light to begin with, and likely very few of them stop and check out the lifeless little negative space within. But that’s a shame, as it contains one very large, bone-shaped mystery object.

external gated area of the Carnegie Natural History Museum with mystery bone on shipping pallets, Pittsburgh, PA

In context: the Carnegie Museum’s mystery bone outdoors, around back.

What is it?

It is enormous–at least twenty feet long and a foot-and-a-half thick. It has the gentle curve of a rib, or a boat’s hull. I can only imagine how much it must weigh–certainly hundreds, possibly thousands of pounds. The big bone rests on four separate wooden shipping pallets (with space in-between) and vertical bookend-shaped supports.

The bone’s far end splays out as if it once joined to some greater structure, or guided supporting tissue. The near end tapers to a gentle point, again resembling an enormous mammalian chest bone. But if this is indeed a rib, the creature it came from would be the size of King Kong.

image of King Kong terrorizing actress Fay Wray in the 1933 movie still

One possible source of the Carnegie mystery bone

So, we set out to answer this mystery. Using only the most rigorous of modern identification techniques, we put together our years of hard journalistic acumen, consultation with the most brilliant minds in marine mammal science*, and, yes, “our gut.” Through this, we’re pretty sure we came up with a winner. The mystery bone appears to be one of a pair of lower jaw bones from a whale–likely a blue whale, the largest animal ever known to have lived on Earth. [Take that, Dippy!]

blue whale skeleton

That looks like a match to me! Blue whale skeleton [photo: Canadian Museum of Nature]

Why is it here?

Now, this blogger doesn’t have a lot of room to talk. His small back yard is a de facto dumping ground for household detritus he should be dealing with instead of reporting on stories of somebody else’s mystery bones. That said, Pittsburgh Orbit is not a 120-year-old giant regional cultural institution with a large number of paid staff (at least, not yet). Hell, we’d be ordering our interns to stow the mystery bone in the hall closet or sell it cheap on Craig’s List. Put that on your resume! [Note to self: get some Orbit interns and have them clean up the back yard.]

side view of mystery bone spanning four shipping pallets, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, PA

Mystery bone, side view [note second mystery bone peeking out from around the corner]

The most plausible answer is simply that there just isn’t any place to put the giant bone. It’s too damn big and heavy to move, and as a weird standalone–without the rest of its blue whale parts–it may not make a lot of sense to exhibit.

But this leads to a follow-up question: if The Carnegie values this asset enough to keep it around, why not protect it a little bit more? It seems like an easy enough task to at least send one of those interns out to wrap it in plastic [Laura Palmer got better treatment!] or throw a tarp over the whole thing–and maybe get some Fantastik® and clean that green algae off while you’re at it. I realize bones are pretty tough, but put one through enough Pittsburgh snow, ice, and rain**–not to mention radical temperature and humidity shifts–and it’s hard to imagine it preserving that well–it’s already splitting! Ah, hell–that’s why we’re bloggers and not mystery bone scientists.

top view of mystery bone spanning four shipping pallets, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, PA

Mystery bone, top view

* Google.com
** Not that it looks like we’ll get any this year

4 thoughts on “Osteo-Mysterioso: Carnegie’s Giant Mystery Bone

  1. davidc5033 says:

    Great post! One thing I learned about getting information is to call the receptionist. They’re the only ones who answer the phone. I can’t say they’ll always know anything or care and that’s when conjecture becomes all the more satisfying!


    • Will says:

      Whoa whoa whoa–hold it there, Bernstein. “Getting information” from credible sources sounds a lot like the way the liberal media would have us reporting! Maybe that’s the way they do things out in Portlandistan, but this Orbit’s readers don’t want to be troubled with “the facts.” We’ll keep things just the way they are: free of any confirmation of reality, thank you.


  2. Carnegie MusNatHist (@CarnegieMNH) says:

    To answer your question:

    What is it?

    The left lower jaw of a blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) the largest animal to ever live on Earth (including dinosaurs).

    Why is it outside?

    This jaw was donated to the museum in the early 1940s and is the only part of the animal we have. Four years ago, it was moved to the Oakland campus from offsite storage because that facility was closing. Whale bones contain a great deal of oil that is difficult to eliminate. The oils often ooze to the surface of the bone and attract dirt that becomes embedded there. This was the case with this jaw, which had become blackened and sticky due to soot from Pittsburgh’s industrial era adhering to the oily surface.

    There are a variety of methodologies that mammalogists use to clean whale bones. One method, commonly used for especially large and heavy bones, is to expose them to the elements and let nature clean them. The long weathering process on our blue whale jaw is intended to eliminate the possibility of future oil migration. The algae currently on the jaw will be addressed with light surface cleaning prior to removal from the courtyard.

    To learn more about how exposure to the elements has been used to clean whale bones read the story of Snow, an adult female humpback whale whose bones were cleaned by the National Park Service for more than 10 years before being put on display: (http://www.nps.gov/glba/learn/nature/cleaning-and-preparation.htm)


    • Will says:

      Thank you for the inside scoop, Carnegie Museum! While The Orbit is proud of correctly ID-ing the species, we’re a little ashamed of thinking it just got left outside because there was nowhere to put it. In hindsight, that’s a pretty silly explanation.

      This begs some follow-up questions, though. If the jaw bone was donated seventy years ago, when is it de-oiled enough for whatever its future holds? And what is that future? Are there long-term exhibition plans for the bone? And what’s the story on that other bone that you can just barely see around the corner (behind the whale jaw bone)?


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