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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Department ofVertebrate Zoology

Division of Mammals

Tarsius bancanus
Fin Whale skull
Balaenoptera physalus (Fin Whale) skull, USNM 16039. V. Portway. © Smithsonian Institution.

History of The Marine Mammal Program

The Smithsonian Institution has long had an interest in marine mammals, starting with the hiring of Spencer Fullerton Baird in 1850 as assistant secretary with the responsibility of the directorship of the United States National Museum.

In 1878 Baird became the second secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, a position he held until his death in 1887. Baird was an avid naturalist with a bent towards the marine environment. His interest lead to the hiring of such eminent naturalists as Leonard Stejneger and William H. Dall. Although Stejneger was most known for his work in herpetology and Dall in mollusks, they were part of a body of researchers who contributed to the study of marine mammals whenever possible. Baird also was instrumental in the forming of the United States Fish Commission in 1871 and became the first director of that commission.

The Fish Commission has gone through a variety of names changes, from the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries up through the National Marine Fisheries Service. The Commission has always had an interest in marine mammals fostered by the interests of its first director. The current Marine Mammal Program of the Smithsonian maintains a excellent working relationship with the National Marine Fisheries Service resulting in numerous additions to the marine mammal collection.

The first person who could be termed a curator of marine mammals was Frederick W. True. He had previously served as a clerk for the Fish Commission (1878-81), where he had charge for that agency's exhibit at the Berlin Fisheries Exposition of 1880. True was hired as librarian and acting curator of mammals in the United States National Museum in 1881. True was very active in both exhibits and research, largely dealing with both living and fossil marine mammals. He is best known for his contributions on mysticetes (1904 The whalebone whales of the western North Atlantic) and the beaked whales (1910 An account of the beaked whales of the family Ziphiidae).

True died in 1914 and left the Smithsonian without a full time marine mammalogist but other curators contributed to marine mammal studies, namely Leonhard Stejneger and Gerrit S. Miller. In 1920 Remington Kellogg joined the Bureau of the Biological Survey (then under USDA) and transferred from there to the United States National Museum in 1928. Kellogg entered the USNM as an assistant curator and he was promoted to full curator upon Gerrit S. Miller's retirement in 1941. Kellogg was interested in fossil marine mammals and whale conservation. He was instrumental in the formation of the International Whaling Commission and chaired its first meeting in 1946. Kellogg retired in 1962 but remained active until his death in 1969. Charles Handley, a curator in the mammal division with extremely broad interests, contributed a review of the odontocete genus Kogia. The next marine mammalogist to come to the National Museum was Clayton E. Ray in 1964. Ray is interested in marine mammals, particularly fossil pinnipeds and held a curatorial position in the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology. Although Ray retired in 1994 he continues his work as a curator emeritus. James G. Mead held the position as curator of marine mammals in the Division of Mammals from 1972 until 2009, when he retired with emeritus status. The current curator of marine mammals is Michael R. McGowen.

Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887)
Frederick W. True (1858-1914)
Leonhard Stejneger (1851-1943)
Gerrit S. Miller (1869-1956)
A. Remington Kellogg (1892-1969)
Clayton E. Ray (1933- )
James G. Mead (1943- )
Michael R. McGowen

Current Marine Mammal Program

The Marine Mammal Program is a cooperative research program whose principal goal is to extract all biological data that we can from stranded and incidentally taken animals. Strandings form our only means of access to better than half of the cetacean species. It is possible to gain data on many aspects of the normal life history of cetaceans through a thorough examination of these specimens. We routinely collect data and specimens that relate to stomach contents, relative organ weights, parasite burden, reproductive condition and stage of physical maturity. We also take external morphometrics and photographs of the external pigmentation pattern. These data forms the basis for all of Dr. Mead's current research publications. Dr. McGowen is building an ambitious research program using genomics and morphology to study the diversity, evolution, and systematics of marine mammals.

Marine Mammal Collection

The collection of marine mammals in the National Museum is the largest in the world, consisting of more than 11,000 specimens of cetaceans, 3,300 specimens of pinnipeds and 390 specimens of sirenians. Most of these are represented by osteological material although we have a fairly large collection of embalmed intact specimens and samples in alcohol. There is also a priority to increase the scope and diversity of our marine mammal frozen tissue collection.

The collection is housed in several locations. The fluid preserved marine mammal specimens, along with the pinniped and sirenian osteological collections, are located at the Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland. The collection of cetacean osteological material is housed in the Garber Facility, which is located next door to Museum Support Center.

In addition to these primary collections, the Marine Mammal Program maintains a number of ancillary collections. The largest of these consist of the collection of notes and photographs which are stored in the Marine Mammal Program's office.

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