X-ray Room 

X-Ray Room

Curriculum links

Learning area


Which strands will it fit with?

Living World

Key competencies

Thinking, Relating to others

Levels of achievement

Levels 1–8

Year group

Years 1–10

Which topics of study can it support?

  • Earth science; New Zealand environment

Back to the top

How long might this take?

• Allow 5–10 minutes.

Where do I find it?

  • Level 2, at the far end of Mountains to Sea. If you get lost, just ask a Te Papa host.

Why should I take my class to visit this?

  • View the skeletons of whales, dolphins, and seals.
  • The whole class can easily fit along the window to view the skeletons.

What is there to do there?

  • Look at the sea creatures' names listed outside the X-ray Room and match them with the numbers beside the skeletons.
  • Identify which skeletons are whales, which are dolphins, and which are seals.

Back to the top

What should I know about this?

  • Te Papa’s collection of cetacean and seal skeletons is one of the largest in the world.


  • Whales, dolphins, and porpoises all belong to the same taxonomic order called cetaceans. They are mammals, which means they are warm-blooded, have at least a few hairs on their bodies, and nourish their young with milk.
  • Te Papa's collection is particularly famous for its beaked whales. Some species of beaked whale have never been seen alive, and have only been identified by their bones. Beaked whales prefer deep water. Scientists think that apart from sperm whales which can dive to – 2000 metres deep and stay underwater for 80 minutes – beaked whales can dive the deepest and stay under the longest of all cetaceans.
  • The world’s whales are divided into two types: those with teeth and those without. The latter are called baleen whales and their characteristics include paired blowholes and baleen plates. Baleen plates strain and filter the whale’s food from the sea.
  • Toothed whales range in size from 1.2 to 20 metres long.


  • Seals belong to the pinniped (fin-footed) group of mammals. They are typically sleek-bodied and spend most of their lives in water. Their front limbs are large flippers, and their bodies narrow into a short tail.
  • There are three families of pinnipeds:
  • Odobenidae – walruses
  • Otariidae – sea lions and fur seals
  • Phocidae – true earless seals.
    • The smallest seal is the Galapagos fur seal. It weighs about 30 kilograms and measures 1.2 metres long when fully grown. The largest seal is the southern elephant seal. The male is over 5 metres long when fully grown and weighs up to 5000 kilograms.

    Back to the top

    Possible topics for discussion

    • What is inside the X-ray Room?
    • What do we already know about whales, dolphins, and seals?
    • Which skeleton in the X-ray Room do you think is the largest? Find its number.
    • If you could research one of these skeletons, which one would you choose? Why?
    • Would you like to have teeth like skeleton number 20? What is it?
    • All whales eat meat; they are carnivores. Discuss the difference between baleen and toothed whales, and the foods they eat.
    • What is baleen and what does it do? Can you find an example of baleen in the X-ray Room?
    • Can you find the jaw bone of number 7? This is only one side of a blue whale’s mandible: imagine how much you could eat with a jaw this big!
    • Are whales, dolphins, and seals fish?
    • Beaked whales are rare species of whale. Look for some skeletal parts of the beaked whale.
    • Can you find any toothed marine mammals in the X-ray Room? What are their names?
    • How many skeletons in the X-ray Room have teeth? What about those that don’t – what do they use to eat their food instead?
    • Choose a skeleton with teeth. How many teeth can you count? Toothed whales tend to be smaller than baleen whales, but they still have between  one and 65 teeth depending on their species.
    • The largest seal is the southern elephant seal: can you find the skeleton of a southern elephant seal in the X-ray Room?
    • Find a seal skeleton. Where are its flippers? What about its tail?

    Back to the top

    Further information

    • Whales and Dolphins, Martin, A R, and others, 1990, London: Salamander.
    • The Natural World of the Māori, Orbell, M, 1985, Auckland: Collins and David Bateman.
    • Tai Awatea | Knowledge Net, Te Papa’s online multimedia resource.

    Related material

    • Pygmy blue whale self guided resource
    • Pygmy blue whale in Collections Online
    • NatureSpace Discovery Centre 
    • The Guard family, inside Passports, Level 4. This exhibit shows an early immigrant family, and some of the tools and weapons they used for hunting whales and seals.
    • Ngāti Pikiao pātaka (food storage house), Mana Whenua, Level 4. Take a look at the arms of the pātaka and see if you can spot the two carved whales. These whales represent ‘plenty’ or the ‘abundance of food’, and are also seen as guardians.
    • Whales | Tohorā exhibition. This exhibition is currently touring overseas, but you can still find out some amazing facts about whales on this mini-site.

    Back to the top