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