Friday, May 7, 2010

Baleen Wolfkiller: Fact or Fiction?

The CSI:NY wolfkiller
Every once in a while I get a spike in traffic to the site from people searching "Baleen Wolfkiller".  It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but it turns out that a baleen wolfkiller was the murder weapon in an episode of CSI:NY (season 5,epsiode 19).  There's a good synopsis of the episode here. One of the scientists found descriptions of the device by doing an online search.  The information and websites that she visits are fictional, but baleen wolfkillers are real artifacts.

The CSIs found this (pretend) website
I watched the episode and it looked more or less accurate - the baleen looked like baleen and the way it was folded looked like the ethnographic examples of wolfkillers that I've seen in photos.  The Native American tribe in the show was fictional and for the sake of the story they moved the artifact from the arctic to Manhattan.  The only baleen wolfkillers that I'm aware of come from the Western Arctic between Alaska and the Northwest Territories, but if someone knows of their use elsewhere I'd be interested in hearing about it.

Fort Anderson Baleen Wolfkiller
Using humpback whale baleen from a whale that was found beached near St. John's last summer, I made two wolfkillers to test - one based on the CSI:NY example and one based on an ethnographically collected specimen from Fort Anderson and illustrated in the Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 5, Arctic.  I wanted to see if the artifacts perform the way they do in books and on tv.  The two examples that I reproduced for the experiment differ significantly in size; the Fort Anderson wolfkiller is 31 cm long and is folded up into a package 7cm long.  The CSI:NY wolfkiller is much smaller, about 12 cm long and folded into a 3 cm long package.  Presumably the creators of the show needed to make a small version of the device that could be swallowed by an unaware human victim. 

CSI:NY experimental wolfkiller
Aside from the size, the most significant difference was the binding material.  In the ethnographic example, the binding was removed prior to use and the unbound baleen was wrapped up in bait meat, fat or fish.  In the tv show, the detectives speculated that the wolfkiller was hidden in an oyster and swallowed with the binding in place.  They said that the lashing  used was catgut, but the thread that they showed was much finer than the catgut that I'm familiar with - it looked more like sinew, so I used sinew in the experiment.

The materials used
To simulate stomach acid, I make a weak hydrochloric acid solution using muriatic acid in a ratio of 1 part muriatic acid to 60 parts water.  Stomach acid has a pH between 1 and 2.  I wanted a transparent, tough material to simulate the intestine, so I used a condom.  For the experiment I used two Lifestyles ultrathin condoms - one for each wolfkiller.  References that I've seen indicate that it typically takes 24 to 72 hours for food to pass through a humans digestive tract, so I was prepared to let the experiment run for up to 72 hours.

Folded and unfolded wolfkiller
I prepared the wolfkillers ahead of time by cutting 1 cm strips of baleen from a humpback baleen plate using a scroll saw.  Using files and sandpaper, I sharpened both ends of each strip to match the ethnographic and CSI:NY examples.  I boiled them for about an hour to soften them in order to fan fold them into shape.  While they were still flexible, I tightly tied them in the middle with sinew.  I didn't make any knots in the sinew, I just smoothed it down on itself and set them aside to dry for 12-24 hours.

Wolfkiller in condom in warm water
When they were dry, I removed the binding around the Fort Anderson reproduction and left the sinew on the smaller CSI:NY wolfkiller.  I put them in the condoms and poured in the acid.  I tied a stone weight to the reservoir tip of the condom and tied the other end to a chopstick and suspended the whole thing in a big jug of warm water.  I kept replacing the water throughout the experiment to simulate a warm body environment.  After the first 'wet' test with the Fort Anderson wolfkiller I reboiled it, set it, dried it and unwrapped it to create a dry control test to compare the 'wet' results against.

Fort Anderson Baleen Wolfkiller, Wet Test:
  • 0 hrs 0 mins: Placed it in the acid solution in the condom, no expansion, free floating.
  • 0 hrs 28 mins: It expanded and began pressing on the interior walls of the condom.
  • 1 hrs 0 mins: It expanded and lodged in place. Impossible to move forward or backward without catching and tearing the condom
  • 7 hrs 10 mins: It punctured the condom. Experiment finished.
Fort Anderson Wolfkiller at 0 hrs, 0 mins

Fort Anderson Wolfkiller at 0hrs, 28 mins - first contact

Fort Anderson Wolfkiller - pressure leading up to the puncture

Fort Anderson Wolfkiller - Immediately after puncturing the condom

    CSI: NY Baleen Wolfkiller, Wet Test:

    • 0 hrs 0 mins: Placed it in the acid solution in the condom, no expansion, free floating.
    • 3 hrs 50 mins: The sinew binding began to loosen and unravel.
    • 52 hrs 0 mins: The sinew binding let loose and the baleen expanded and applied pressure to the interior wall of the condom.
    • 52 hrs 50 mins: The Baleen elongated inside the length of the condom. No longer possible to catch or tear. Experiment Finished.
    CSY:NY wolfkiller - it looked like this for the first 52 hours

    CSI:NY wolfkiller - 52 hrs, 0 mins - the sinew binding finally released

    CSI:NY Wolfkiller - 52hrs, 50 mins - aligned in the condom, no more chance to puncture

      Fort Anderson Baleen Wolfkiller, Dry Test:
      • 0 hrs 0 mins: The sinew wrapping is removed. Very slight expansion as the tension is removed.
      • 7 hrs 10 mins: Slightly expanded.
      • 20 hrs 50 mins: It contracted tightly. Observed in the early morning after a cool, damp night.
      • 24 hrs 0 mins: Still tightly contracted. Experiment finished.
      Fort Anderson and CSI:NY Wolfkillers bound up to dry
      Fort Anderson Wolfkiller - 0 hrs, 0 mins - holds its shape after the lashing is removed

      Fort Anderson Wolfkiller - 7 hrs, 10 mins - slight expansion at the same time it was fully extended in the wet experiment

      Fort Anderson Wolfkiller - 24hrs, 0mins - it contracted on its own again after a cold damp night

      It worked!
      The Fort Anderson baleen wolfkiller absolutely worked.  The ethnographic description seems completely plausible and accurate in all regards.  In a colder environment, the baleen could be frozen inside the meaty bait and be held stiffly in shape until the wolf swallowed it and it began to thaw out in the stomach.  As the dry test shows, a cool, humid environment actually causes an unbound baleen wolfkiller to contract tightly.  Baleen is keratin, like our fingernails and hair.  Seeing the tightly contracted baleen this morning made me wonder what kind of hair day my curly-haired friends are having.  By contrast, the warm, wet, acidic environment inside an animals digestive tract releases that tension and the baleen slowly begins to return to its original, straight shape.  The points on either end would snag and tear any soft tissue that it encountered.  In the test, this fatal puncture, which would lead to the spilling of the contents of the digestive tract into the stomach cavity and weakening and ultimately death by sepsis, happened after 7 hours and 10 minutes.  The movement of the animal and contractions of the digestive tract would only accelerate the internal damage done.

      The CSI:NY wolfkiller partially worked.  It took a long time for the sinew binding to let go and when it did, it didn't actually do any damage to the short section of intestine that the condom represented in the experiment. In the tv show, the sinew thread sizzles and pops off when the wolfkiller is submerged in acid. But that didn't happen in this experiment.  Its likely that the mechanical action of digestion and the friction with other food particles would work the thread loose more quickly, but as the dry test demonstrates, the binding is not necessary for the folded baleen to hold its shape.  Swallowing the wolfkiller is like swallowing a bomb that is set to go off.  The binding could act as a fuse, with a longer thread and more lashings acting to delay the expansion of the device, but at the risk of the whole package passing harmlessly through the victims body without ever detonating.

      Extracting the wolfkiller, CSI:NY
      In this experiment, the binding didn't release until 52 hours had passed.  If it would have come loose in less than 24 hours, then it would have certainly still been inside the victim, but every hour after that increases the chance that it will have worked its way through the digestive tract and been excreted with no damage done.  Still, the device did open, became briefly lodged and then loosened to float farther down the intestine to snag and potentially tear again, which is consistent with the damage done to the victim in the tv show.   On CSI:NY the wolfkiller tumbled down the small intestine creating a series of punctures as it descended before lodging in the colon.  On the other hand, the larger Fort Anderson wolfkiller would lodge high in the digestive track soon after it was swallowed,and the expansion begins so quickly that it might not even leave the stomach before extending.

      Small, but not that small.
      Aside from the liberties taken with the cultural and geographic origin of the device, the only real strike against the CSI:NY version of the wolfkiller is the idea that somebody could be tricked into swallowing something that size and not realize it.  In the show, it was hidden in an oyster and gulped down in one go.  Maybe.  Even the small wolfkiller is about the size of a pen lid.  I'm not sure if someone could swallow a pen lid and not realize it.  A wolf could gulp down one of these things without caring or realizing whats going on, but as a murder weapon it seems pretty likely that the victim would notice.  But if they did swallow it and the binding did release before they passed it - ouch.

      Photo Credits:
      1,2,4, 21: Screen captures from CSI NY: The Complete Fifth Season
      3: Figure from Handbook of North American Indians Volume 5 Arctic
      5-20, 22: Tim Rast


      1. Glad I read the post, I was very confused when I first saw the photos with the condoms ;)

      2. Best experimental archaeology scenario ever! I almost didn't believe you with the CSI reference. I think I've seen another reference outside of the Handbook, but I'll have to think about it.

        Nice work regardless.

      3. haha very nice. I dont watch TV but my wife walked by the computer and asked why I was looking up baleen wolfkiller.

        Pretty neat

      4. For the longest time, I couldn't figure out what was driving the baleen wolfkiller traffic to the site. All I knew was that people in Australia or Belgium or Poland would suddenly go to their computers at the same time and type in "baleen wolfkiller". I had no idea that CSI:NY reruns were making them do it. That never happens when Dr. Tim Rast shows up on "King of the Hill".

      5. It makes sense why the murderer used the wolfkiller out of all the Native American weaponry in the room to kill his business partner. They had just had a VERY heated argument, and if one of them were to suddenly drop dead, everyone would be eyeing the other with suspicion. The more time passes before the death of the one, the less suspicion falls on the other. Another thing, my fiance accidently swallowed his tooth plate---which is also approximately the size of a pen cap---eating an exotic bagle-salmon sandwich, and it took a whole week for him to get it back. So the small wolfkiller does have merit. Don't forget raw oyster is rubbery and slick and bigger than a pen cap.

      6. In Eastern and Far Eastern cultures there are many 'dark arts' that pertain to similar obscure practices; that can be used for both malevolent and benevolent purposes.
        Often in the form of elaborate traps made from natural substances and materials.

        It is similar to a type of Shamanism or even modern day military field craft!

        (Bearing in mind that these are ancient and mythologized practices and a part of folklore!)

        They were lorded as a form of Voodooism, Black Magic and such like, if you will.

        This of course is before modern science and technology fully took hold there...

        It/they, often including baiting, swallowing ‘processed’ animal body parts and even the segmented husk of 'humming' locusts, as a form of barb for weakening and debilitating prey....

        I had only learned the most rudimentary bases of these ‘folklore’ when I was a boy in the Far East.

        (Definitely something NOT to be taught to immature small children…)

        I think these skills maybe akin to the ‘Crocodile Dundee’s Character’, skills acquired from aborigines in Australia…rarely passed on and almost extinct….
        (A travesty and a tragedy!)

        What comes to mind off hand is the following, I hope you will forgive me for it’s crudeness….

        One rather undeserving and unsavoury comparison I can give that parallels in the West is that of the sex drug ‘Spanish Fly’.

        I know what you are thinking it's an aphrodisiac….
        Well, Spanish fly of course is actually dried and grounded beetles.
        (And of course in high concentrations and heavy doses can be a very effective and fatal poison!)

        Yes, it is a terrible shame that such ‘delicate’ cultural artefacts and human history is so poorly preserved and misunderstood, sometimes made deliberately so!

      7. Thats an interesting observation. The northern cultures who used wolfkillers would have distant ties to Northeast Asia.

      8. I always appreciate it when someone takes the time to test the claims made in "scientifically based" TV programs. It's nice to know which parts are factual and which are made up for viewers entertainment.

      9. Nice site, just googled Wolfkiller - while watching rerun of CSI in the UK :)

      10. Yep, CSI:NY got me come here, too. Thanks for the fully detailed info ;)

      11. Well at least Im not the only one that took interest to look up the CSI junk. :)
        Very cool post!

      12. Another rerun in The Netherlands here :-)

      13. Way cool and a very thorough experiment. I love CSI and I know they use real CSI's for cosultants. And yes I came to the site to see if there really was such a thing as wolfkiller and I was very intrigued by your blog. Good job!

      14. Thanks for the effort - all my questions on this subject nicely addressed at one go ! Keep Experimenting !

      15. Great site w/ a lot of historic knowledge... Thanks CSI/ NY.

      16. I can't swallow a tablet whole never mind a folded piece of whale:-)

      17. I remember reading a story in school called nanook of the north where he did a similar thing only to a polar bear. The whale bone was folded and then wrapped in blubber and frozen. When the polar bear ate the blubber it melted and pierced the bears
        intestine and after days it died.

        By D Osbourne

      18. One more Google rush after seeing this episode of what's called here in France "Les Experts". As you see it's still working. Great experiment. High level science job ! Congratulations

      19. very nice explanation. Indeed I saw the reference in CSINY and was curious enough to look for it.

      20. That´s really a highly interesting experiment! I also remember the wolfkiller being mentioned and explained in detail in Peter Freuchen´s novel "The Eskimo", when the main-protagonists Mala makes some to kill wolves.

      21. Guess what was on TV last night here in Spain? A rerun of THAT episode of CSI:NY! Hahaha. I fell asleep before the show started but this morning my wife drew a sketch of a fan folded baleen tied in the middle, asking me if I had ever heard of a unique hunting technique used by “the original Native American tribe in Manhattan” that employed this device. And voilà, Google ushered us to your fascinating blog.

        We are stunned by your meticulous experiment and by your flintknapped creations. Lidia loves creative handcrafting and experiments with new materials and techniques, and was wondering whether one could make a necklace using a baleen bent into a wide circle (around the nape) and opened in the front (chest) -- here on the Mediterranean coast we don't get baleen whales.

        Regarding the “Arctic North American Indians” and their hunting customs I once drove the Dalton Highway over the Brooks Range to Prudhoe Bay and stayed in Deadhorse on the Arctic Ocean shore in Northeastern Alaska, mingling with both sports and subsistence hunters along the way. None of them were after wolves nor using anything like these wolfkillers nowadays indeed (they were mostly caribou bowhunters on the tundra). I wonder if they could have been used to hunt the large Polar Bears in the area that feed on whale carcasses, for it seems they would indeed not notice swallowing anything of that size.


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