Elemental Problems, Methodical Solutions: Expertise, Ecology and Entertainment in the Study of Marine Mammals

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This paper examines the development of socio-technical strategies and practices that have been developed, by both experts and laypeople, to study and to display the socio-ecology of marine mammals. The late 1950s saw the emergence of a distinctively different approach to the understanding of animal behaviour and biology – one that focused on the observation and (sometimes) manipulation of animals as they lived under natural conditions. In the first instance, it was applied to land animals, birds and insects in Europe, America and the territories that either were, or had been, under colonial control. By the early 21st century, however, many wild-living colonies of whales, dolphins and seals were being studied by researchers, and many of them – as with terrestrial animals – were not just known individually, but could be placed on a generations-deep family tree. This paper will explore how this transition was managed. It will show how it was possible for scientists to study live animal behaviour in an element inimical to human survival, and how researchers borrowed key methodological practices from other human activities in order to access their research subjects. It will show how these socio-technical developments intersected with the efforts to display marine mammals on land and above all, it will demonstrate the ways in which the agency of the animals under observation had an essential role to play in the emergence of cetology as a profession and as a form of knowledge.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of History of Science and Technology
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 11 Jun 2019


  • field science
  • Marine Science
  • History of Science
  • STS

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