Neighbors assemble dolphin skeleton



ELLSWORTH — A pair of Ellsworth neighbors have breathed new life into an Atlantic white-sided dolphin that had washed ashore in Rye, N.H.

No, Captain Toby Stephenson, a member of the staff at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, and Dasha Herrrington, a junior at John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor, weren’t able to revive the dolphin. It had long been dead when it was found. 

Instead, the duo finished a skeleton articulation of the dolphin for the Blue Ocean Society earlier this month and Herrington was able to show off her work at the state science fair. 

“It’s something you don’t get to do every day,” Herrington said last week. 

The project started around Christmas, when Stephenson popped over to Herrington’s house and asked if she was interested in helping him put the skeleton back together.

The skeleton was missing portions of its lower jaw, so Herrington and Stephenson assembled it mouth open.

Stephenson had experience in articulating skeletons — the act of mounting bones and arranging them in lifelike poses — both during and after his time as curator at the now defunct Bar Harbor Whale Museum.

He had been asked by the Blue Ocean Society in New Hampshire to work on the dolphin and turned to Herrington for a little extra help.

There is an art to skeleton articulation. The right arrangement can make it seem like animals will leap back to life and the gaps between the bones can spark people’s imagination. It’s no wonder the American Natural History Museum places dinosaur bones right in the lobby. Bones draw people in. 

Herrington said there is a definite art to it — she found it similar to sculpture — but there’s a lot of science involved as well.

The dolphin has about 100 bones. If you don’t know its anatomy, it can be hard to know where the 46 vertebrae, 14 ribs, numerous phalanges, teeth and several skull pieces go. Think putting a Lego set together without the instructions.

“It’s a great opportunity because the trick of doing an articulation is knowing the anatomy of an animal,” said Stephenson.

After studying, things start to click. 

“You begin to understand, ‘Oh, these ribs go on the right side and these go on the left side’” Herrington said.

For the articulation, Herrington and Stephenson drilled through the middle of the bones, threaded wire or rods through them and glued them together. 

For other species, you can play with their poses, but it’s a little harder with a dolphin, which only has so many positions in its arsenal. 

“Doing a seal skeleton is a lot more interesting,” Stephenson said. “There’s not a lot you can do with a dolphin.”

To overcome a massive underbite caused by missing jaw pieces, the two left the dolphin’s jaw open, which added a little pizazz.

This was Stephenson’s first time doing an articulation with a high school student and he praised Herrington’s work and thoughtfulness.

When the flesh was stripped away, Herrington started to wonder about the origin of cetaceans and humans and how they share a lot of the same traits, such as a central backbone and lungs, but, at the same time, they couldn’t be more opposite.

“The framework for a mammal is all there,” Stephenson said. “They’ve modified into something completely different than what we are.”  

The whole thing was fun for Herrington. She wants to continue in the sciences, though she hasn’t decided if she’ll go into marine biology or some other field.

“This opportunity was a way to figure out my interests,” she said. 

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