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Getting the Big Picture : The new exhibit at Burbank’s Natural History Museum will offer facts and explore mysteries about whales, dolphins and porpoises.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

We are moved by the plight of whales and their relatives, even to the point of identifying with them, and yet what do we really know about them? The problem, of course, is that they live in the oceans, and we rarely, if ever, get an unobstructed view of them in that vast, mysterious habitat. The conditions for observing whales, dolphins and porpoises in the wild are, in the words of expert John Heyning, “terrible, which is the reason we know relatively little about them.”

What we do know about whales and their relatives, including discoveries made only recently, is the subject of a major new exhibit opening Saturday at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County/Burbank. The show, which will embark on a six-year international tour after its Burbank run, has taken three years to create. Called “Masters of the Ocean Realm: Whales, Dolphins & Porpoises,” it will include life-size models of seven different species in their natural habitats and will address such persistent puzzles as the daily life of cetaceans (the creatures’ family name) and why some individuals end up stranded each year on the world’s beaches.

As the tremendous popularity of “Free Willy” made clear, cetaceans have an enormous mystic. “They’re like dinosaurs,” says James Mead, curator of marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Why? “They’re big, they’re physically attractive,” he notes, and, perhaps most important, they’re no immediate threat to us.

According to Heyning, head of the Natural History Museum’s Marine Mammal Program, the new show is especially timely because so much has been learned about whales and their relatives in recent years. There is still much to discover, he says, such as just how many species there are, exactly what they look like and how they behave. But, thanks to new techniques, including DNA analysis and electronic tagging, we are beginning to find out more and more about the charismatic sea creatures. Among the important recent discoveries: half a dozen newly identified species, including a second species of common dolphin. Scientists have also learned recently that female killer and pilot whales undergo something akin to menopause, once thought unique to humans.

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Heyning is the man people call when they find a stranded whale, dolphin or porpoise on a Southern California beach. As he explains, the museum has been collecting and studying stranded cetaceans since the 1960s. As a result, the Los Angeles museum has a collection of skeletons and other remains second only to that of the Smithsonian Institution--a total of more than 3,000 specimens.

Heyning and his volunteers collect 25 to 30 stranded whales and other cetaceans a year, often using a truck equipped with a special whale-sized winch to haul the creature off the beach, especially important during the hot summer months, and deliver it to the Marine Mammal Program’s research station in Vernon. There the cetacean corpses are flensed (stripped of their blubber) and scrutinized for clues about everything from the individual’s age (which can often be determined like that of a tree, by studying ring-like markings within the teeth) to what it had for dinner.

The study of stranded individuals has revised conventional wisdom about many marine mammals, Heyning says. In recent decades, scientists have learned that the humpback is not a rotund leviathan with an eggplant-colored hide, but a much more streamlined, dark blue-gray creature. Cetacean autopsies have also revealed how a species of beaked whale manages to eat prodigiously without teeth: It uses its tongue like a piston to suck in squid.

To strip his cetacean skeletons, Heyning employs a traditional helper: the larva of the dermestid beetle. Harsh chemicals can harm the bones, and enzyme cleansers are temperamental and expensive, he explains. “I’d rather do it the old-fashioned organic way,” he says. Besides, he adds, “they work for cheap.”

DNA testing--the very stuff that is making headlines in the O.J. Simpson case--is also revolutionizing the study of whales and their more diminutive relatives. Conservationists recently used DNA analysis to prove that some Japanese markets were illegally selling the flesh of protected whale species.

Modern science’s ability to read a particular cetacean’s genetic profile is also illuminating in other ways. Explains Heyning: “We’ve learned a lot recently about the social systems of whales using DNA. You can actually dart them with a small arrow and take a tiny skin sample.” Analysis of the resulting DNA has shown that male pilot whales typically stay in their mothers’ pods but do not father the young in those groups. A similar pattern of outbreeding seems to be typical of killer whales.

One of the seven main exhibits will show how killer whales, or orcas, hunt cooperatively. The show will also feature a model of a Tlingit Indian woman of the Northwest, telling the traditional tale of how the orca came into being. According to Tlingit lore, the orca was carved out of yellow cedar by Naatsilanei, who created the animals to take revenge on the jealous brothers-in-law who tried to kill him.

In some ways the scientific story of the origins of the killer whale and other cetaceans is much harder to believe. As Heyning explains, the common ancestor of whales, dolphins and porpoises is the 55-million-year-old mesonychid, a meat-eating ungulate that lived on land and looked like an extremely unpleasant short-legged dog. Visitors to the show will be able to see how the cetaceans evolved from this ancient ancestor to live in the sea, how the nostrils migrated to the top of the head and became blow holes, how the tail widened into flukes. One of the exhibits in the show utilizes fiber optics so that visitors can compare the bones in the human arm with the bones in the flipper of their very, very distant cousin, the white-sided dolphin.

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Whales have also found an unusual place on the information superhighway in recent years as a result of electronic tagging, Heyning says. “The new electronic tags are essentially small computers,” he points out. A scientist can now sit before his or her computer screen and see data about the depth or duration of a dive being transmitted directly from a tagged whale--a veritable cyber-cetacean.

But technology hasn’t begun to answer all the questions scientists still have about these glorious sea mammals, Heyning says. One example: Milk has been found in the stomach of a 15-year-old sperm whale. Since a whale that age has long been able to feed on its own, observers wonder if the milk doesn’t reflect some not yet known aspect of the social behavior of the animals.

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The organizers of the show have tried to make it as captivating as possible, reasoning that a spoonful of theatricality makes the hard science go down. Among the hands-on exhibits will be a jukebox that features the cetacean Top 40, recordings of the songs and vocalizations of dozens of whales, dolphins and porpoises. Each of the dioramas has also been designed, according to Heyning, “to give you an idea of what it’s like to be out there in the field, at least as much as you can if you’re not Disney.” For example, the exhibit on the narwhal, a whale with a single unicorn-like tusk, will allow visitors to imagine they are hunting the creature in a vinyl Zodiac, the contemporary craft of choice among the Arctic Inuit, who are allowed to hunt the otherwise protected mammals.

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Conservation is one of the themes of the show, and to illustrate it the organizers chose to focus on the Gulf of California harbor porpoise, described by Heyning as one of the most endangered cetaceans in the world. Threatened with extinction because of gill-net fishing, the animals have dwindled to perhaps 200 individuals.

Devoted as he is to saving the whales and their cousins, Heyning hopes that visitors to the exhibit will come away with an understanding of how complex conservation issues are. Human and animal interests are sometimes difficult to balance, he points out. Some 10,000 dolphins and porpoises are killed each year off the coast of Peru, caught for food by people who are starved for protein. A similar number die off the coast of equally hungry Sri Lanka. It’s easy for well-fed Americans to denounce the slaughter, Heyning says, but in fact there are no easy answers to such ecological dilemmas.

Where and When

What: Exhibit “Masters of the Ocean Realm: Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises.”

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Location: Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County / Burbank, 555 N. 3rd St.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, through Jan. 8.

Price: $3.50 general, $2.50 for seniors 62 and older and students 13 to 17, $1.50 for children 5 to 12.

Call: (818) 557-3562.

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