Bringing Them Back to Life: Whale Evolution

Bringing Them Back to Life is a blog series from The Charleston Museum that provides updates and plans for our Natural History Gallery renovations.


This image is a concept image for the layout of the whale evolution portion of the exhibit
and does not necessarily reflect
the final product.

As you may have seen from previous blogs, the Museum is planning a major renovation of our Natural History Gallery, scheduled to open in September 2017. Currently, we are deep into design and fundraising for the project. Through our monthly e-newsletter and blog, we will be providing regular updates on the status of fundraising, design and the many fascinating artifacts, specimens, and exhibits that will appear in the new displays. Matt Gibson, the Museum’s Curator of Natural History, is playing a key role in the project, and he will be sharing his vast knowledge about the collections and how they will interface with the new gallery.

Natural history has been a principal component of the Museum’s endeavors since it was established in 1773.  As outlined in the initial prospectus, the Museum’s founders sought to create “a full and accurate Natural History” of South Carolina, and they set out “to collect and prepare Materials for that Purpose.” Nearly two and a half centuries later, the Museum’s collection contains the largest existing assemblage of South Carolina natural history fossils and specimens known, with many parts of the collection having national and even international importance. We are excited now about the prospect of better presenting these collections to our members, stakeholders, school groups and guests.

A key objective of the Museum’s recently adopted Strategic Plan, the new gallery will present a visually compelling display of indigenous fossils and specimens that tell the story of Lowcountry natural history.  The gallery will offer an unparalleled learning experience focusing on the Lowcountry’s prehistoric and contemporary biodiversity, the significant geologic changes that have taken place here over time, and humans’ impact on the local environment and their curiosity about the world.  It will be the Museum’s most sizeable exhibition space and promises to be an excellent resource for area schools.

I will provide a more in-depth status of fundraising in the next edition, but if you would like to make a donation to this worthy project now, you can do so on our website.  In the meantime, enjoy Matt’s assessment of whale evolution based on fossil whale skulls found throughout the Charleston area.

– Carl P. Borick, Director


Whale Evolution

A major facet of the new Natural History Hall will be the section devoted the whale evolution. The Lowcountry has a very diverse record for whales during the Eocene and Oligocene epochs, which are very important time intervals in whale evolution. Many of the whales in the vertebrate paleontology collection have primitive characteristics including: blowholes near the tip of the snout rather than the top of the head, hind limb bones, and teeth with multiple cusps.

The whale evolution section of the new hall will display these various whales along with artist renditions of what these amazing creatures may have looked like when they were alive. This area will also include interpretations of how these whales changed over time from a terrestrial, or land-based, animal to the marine behemoths we are used to now.

Many of these whales that will be on display in the new hall have been named using the skeletons in our collections and are unique to Southeastern United States. In fact, there are roughly 20 new and undescribed species of Oligocene whales currently in our collections that were collected locally over the last fifty years. These whales will be a major focus of ongoing research at The Charleston Museum.

– Matthew Gibson, Natural History Curator

To contribute to the Museum’s Natural History Gallery, please visit the donation page on our website or call 843.722.2996 ext. 224.