New research lands fin whale discovery at Cotehele

Nick Stokes at Cotehele
Published : 06 Mar 2017 Last update : 03 Mar 2017

A giant jawbone in a Cornish stately home has at last been found to be from a fin whale – thanks to a mixture of cutting edge DNA analysis and archival research.

The jawbones stand either side of a hall door at Cotehele, Cornwall. Each measures nine feet in length.

They were originally believed to belong to a minke whale. But DNA analysis by the Waterford Institute of Technology has revealed that the bones are from a fin whale, leading house staff to christen the whale ‘Finella.’

Whale bones at Cotehele
Whale bones at Cotehele
Whale bones at Cotehele

Nick Stokes, acting house and collections manager at Cotehele, said: 'Cotehele was always intended to show off the Edgcumbe family’s collection of tapestries, old oak furniture, arms and armour and other paraphernalia.

'We knew so little about the whale bones here. It was only after our head of nature conservation told us the bones were too big to belong to a minke whale that we started digging.'

DNA analysis

Conservators at Cotehele sent a sample from the jawbones to Dr Catherine O’Reilly at the Waterford Institute of Technology.

Dr O’Reilly, who has been analysing DNA samples for over 30 years, said: 'We compared the DNA from the bone fragments to the GenBank DNA database. It contains the DNA sequence of every animal species ever analysed.

'There was a perfect match for the fin whale.'

But conservators still didn’t know where the bones were from.

Acting house and collections manager cleans the whale bones
Nick Stokes cleans whale bones at Cotehele
Acting house and collections manager cleans the whale bones

Archive search

There was some speculation that the whale bones could have belonged to a blue whale which washed up at Mevagissey, Cornwall, in 1647.

The truth was only discovered in December after a hunt through old documents at Cotehele.
It uncovered a copy of a partial inventory of the house’s collection, apparently written by owner William, 4th Earl of Edgcumbe in 1887.

The inventory said that the jawbones came from a 61ft whale that landed on Colona Beach, near Bodrugan, on 2 January 1875.

Acting house and collections manager Nick said: 'Finding the inventory came as a total surprise to our team at Cotehele. It’s great to have finally solved the mystery of Cotehele’s whale bones.'

Whales struggle

Head of nature conservation David Bullock said: 'Since the cessation of industrial whaling, fin whales are making a comeback in the north Atlantic.

'Now, these rare whales are being seen more regularly in the Celtic and Irish seas - chasing the plankton and other small fish northwards as climate change warms the seas.'

Visitors will be able to see the newly identified fin whale bones when Cotehele House reopens on 11 March.

Nick Stokes added: 'We’ll be taking good care of Finella, with the conservation team regularly giving the jawbones a light dusting using a hogs-hair brush.'

A pair of jawbones flank the door in the Great Hall at Cotehele in Cornwall

Want to know more? 

Delve further into the background of Cotehele’s mysterious whale bones and how they came to be identified.

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