Sperm whale skeletons

Two sperm whale skeletons are a highlight of the exhibition and have relationships with iwi.

Tū Hononga – the male sperm whale skeleton

The male sperm whale skeleton is named Tū Hononga and was gifted to Te Papa by Te Kawerau ā Maki in 2006. It was collected in 2003 as part of a mass stranding of twelve sperm whales on Karekare beach, West Auckland, New Zealand.

Hinewainui – the female sperm whale skeleton

The female sperm whale skeleton is named Hinewainui and was gifted to Te Papa by Ngāti Kere, in 1992. It was collected in 1992 at Herbertville in southern Hawke's Bay.

Tu Hononga skeleton

The largest toothed predator

This skeleton is from a 17.8-metre (58.4-foot) male sperm whale. Alive, the animal would have weighed between 60 and 70 tonnes (59-69 tons).

The bones give a sense of the whale’s size - the largest toothed predator on the planet. Globally, sperm whales are the most widespread of whale species.

Ribs to protect, spine to propel

The ribs support and protect the core internal organs, as in humans and other mammals. The strong but flexible spine allows the whale to undulate its tail with great propulsive force.

Impressive teeth, but…

The sperm whale’s thin, lower jaw can open very wide. Although its teeth are impressive they’re not used in eating – the whale sucks prey into its mouth. Male sperm whales appear to use their teeth for fighting other males.

Who are you calling big nose?

A sperm whale’s head is made up mostly of a large rectangular nose. The nose comprises up to one third of the entire body length.

What’s in a name?

The sperm whale gets its name from the milky coloured waxes and oils found in a reservoir in its head – whalers thought it might be sperm! The organ containing the spermaceti, however, is involved in the whale’s sound generation.

Hinewainui skeleton

This skeleton belonged to a female sperm whale. Female sperm whales are smaller than males. At 9.8 metres (32 feet), this mature animal is small even for a female, which normally grows to about 12 metres. She may have been between 60 and 65 years old.

Old breaks and arthritis

The whale has had broken bones in her life. Scientists studying the skeleton could see where these breaks have mended as well as where arthritis has affected the bones.

Males are big-heads

The head of a female sperm whale is usually about a quarter of the animal’s length. The head of a mature male can be up to a third of its overall size.

Killer whales kill whales

This whale was almost certainly chased ashore by killer whales intent on killing and eating her. When found stranded, she had ram marks on her head and tooth marks on both her body and flukes – like those that killer whales would make.