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2012

From Inside Lions and Leviathans, Anatomist Builds a Following
The New York Times, February 7, 2012
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Joy Reidenberg’s trip from Dublin to New York in January 2009 was without a doubt the most embarrassing flight of her life.

Her skin gave off a foul stench, like a refrigerator that has gone days without power. She told the flight attendants she was sick, and they discreetly moved her to a seat by the lavatory. They told the other passengers that they were having a little trouble with the bathrooms.

In fact, Dr. Reidenberg was perfectly healthy. “The truth was too hard to explain,” she said: “ ‘Don’t mind me, I was inside a whale yesterday.’ ”

Three days earlier, Dr. Reidenberg (pronounced RY-den-berg) had been sitting in her laboratory at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan. Her lab is full of whale flippers and frozen camel heads and the other things that a comparative anatomist keeps around the workplace. The phone rang.

A British television production company was on the line, wondering if she could fly to Ireland that night. They were about to start filming a series about the world’s biggest animals and, by sheer coincidence, a 65-ton fin whale had washed up on the south coast of Ireland. They wanted to film her dissecting it the next day.

Even before that call, Dr. Reidenberg was a well-respected researcher who was not afraid of getting dirty to learn something about how animals work. She has performed well over 400 dissections on stranded whales. (Each one came about through a similar last-minute call. “You can’t preplan a whale,” she said. “You’ve got to be ready as soon as they strand.”)

But her role in the televised whale dissection turned her to into a creature far more exotic than any of the animals she dissects: a celebrity anatomist.

She became a central figure in the series, “Inside Nature’s Giants,” alongside Mark Evans, a veterinary scientist; Simon Watt, a biologist; and the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. The show became a hit in Britain, and now it has arrived in the United States, where four episodes are being shown on public television, with plans for more. (The fourth, in which she dissects lions and tigers, will be broadcast on Wednesday.)

Dr. Reidenberg had to begin the dissection in Ireland by dealing with the bacterial gas that was building to dangerous levels inside the whale’s carcass. “It was inflating like the Hindenburg,” she said. “If you cut in too deep, you end up with a million sausage links all over the place.”

Her solution was to knife a series of holes in the whale’s throat. “It’s like defusing a bomb,” she said. A rush of wind came from each one, producing a symphony of flatulence. It took an hour for all the gas to exit.

Next, she used a meat hook to haul herself about 10 feet up to the top of the 65-foot-long animal, where she carved long incisions into its side. A digger from a local construction company was used to peel away the blubber in long strips. Now Dr. Reidenberg could cut open a doorway into the whale’s gut and haul out the intestines. The next morning, she climbed into the abdominal cavity, where each organ told its own story. She located the vestigial pelvis, a reminder of whale ancestors that lived on land. She extracted the voice box, which was bigger than she was.

After two days of this, she went back to her hotel and tried to clean off the whale grease. Fifteen showers and three baths later, she still had to make up excuses on the flight to New York; it took days for the grease to completely evaporate from her skin.

A couple of weeks later the television producers, happy with their footage, asked her to return, this time to dissect a tiger in London. She went. They called back, again and again, and she returned, to cut open a python, a polar bear, an elephant, a shark and other big animals, all the while explaining their inner workings.

Dr. Reidenberg, 50, had her first encounter with anatomy as a high school student interning for a veterinarian in Norwalk, Conn. The sight of a dog being opened up for surgery captivated her. “We’re so used to looking at the outside of the animal -- look how pretty it is, look how fast it can run,” she said. “But there’s a lot of prettiness on the inside that people miss.”

She went to college at Cornell, hoping to become a vet or a medical illustrator. But she gave up those notions when she discovered that there were people who learned new things about anatomy for a living. For her Ph.D., she came to Mount Sinai Medical School to work with Jeffrey T. Laitman, an expert on the anatomy of the head and neck.

Since the 1970s, Dr. Laitman has been looking for anatomical clues to the evolution of human speech. Dr. Reidenberg expanded the scope of his work to look at the vocal anatomy of mammals, from moose to rabbits. In 1983, she began teaching at Mount Sinai, and she has focused much of her research on the most remarkable of all mammal voices: those of whales and dolphins.

Whales and dolphins breathe through their blowholes and then seal their nostrils as they dive. And yet they make powerful sounds underwater. (To see how hard this is, try humming with your nose and mouth closed.)

Toothed whales, like dolphins and sperm whales, make high-frequency clicks that bounce off their prey and their surroundings. They push air through valves in the nasal passage, creating pulses that radiate from the head.

Dr. Reidenberg has found that the larynx of toothed whales extends all the way into the nasal passage, allowing them to open their mouths as they hunt, without getting water into the airway. “It’s like having a built-in snorkel,” she said.

Baleen whales, on the other hand, produce low-frequency sounds that can travel hundreds of miles through the ocean. Dr. Reidenberg has discovered that the baleen whale’s larynx is connected to a giant pouch. She has hypothesized that the whales sing by pumping air into the pouches, which then release vibrations into the surrounding water. Recently, Adam Pack and colleagues at the University of Hawaii tested her hypothesis by tracking humpback whales with microphones that can detect from where in the body the songs emerge. As she had predicted, the sounds come from the throat.

At Mount Sinai, Dr. Reidenberg brings her fieldwork into the classroom, showing medical students how our own anatomy is one of many variations evolution has produced. On “Inside Nature’s Giants,” she brings some of the same lessons to her audience.

She hopes the show will bring some attention to the science of anatomy, which is often overshadowed by high-profile fields like genetics and stem cell research. Anatomists regularly discover new adaptations that can have implications for humans: understanding how whales withstand huge pressures, for instance, may lead to new treatments for brain injuries from combat explosions.

There is one other benefit, she said. While she had never considered anatomy as a way to get on television, she loves hearing from strangers about how much they love learning about the insides of animals.

“I love fan mail,” she said. “I don’t know what these celebrities are complaining about.”


Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company. Reprinted with permission.
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