Our mammal researchers answer this and other questions on our Mammalogy FAQs page.
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Mammalogy staff at the Natural History Museum have been collecting and actively studying dead-stranded marine mammals for more than 60 years. In that time Museum scientists have assembled a research collection of marine mammal specimens that is second in size only to that of the Smithsonian Institution. The specimens that make up this important collection are used by Museum biologists as well as scientists from all over the world.
Due to their aquatic existence, little is known about the biology of whales and dolphins, collectively known as cetaceans. Strandings of cetaceans provide a unique opportunity to study these intriguing mammals. Whales and dolphins may wash ashore dead, alive, singly, or in groups. In all cases they become a valuable source of scientific data. Knowledge gained from the detailed dissections we perform provides insight into how cetaceans' bodies function (e.g., how dolphins produce sound and how beaked whales procure food) and helps us determine the evolutionary relationships among the various cetacean species. Stomach contents are examined to provide data on types and amount of prey consumed. The distribution of many species is determined from stranding locations. Since it is difficult to fully observe cetaceans at sea, photographs and measurements of stranded animals provide us with details of the size, shape, and true color pattern of particular species. Over the years, hundreds of scientific discoveries have been based on specimens housed in the Museum's collection.
Stranded marine mammals are under the jurisdiction of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972) and thus can only be handled by authorized persons. Anyone who finds a dead cetacean on the beach in Los Angeles and Orange counties should contact the Natural History Museum's Stranding Hotline at (323) 585-5105, or Mammalogy Department staff at (213) 763-3400.