No One Expects the Comparative Anatomist

Upcoming television series on PBS: Inside Nature’s Giants, begins January 18th at 10 PM.

Professor Joy Reidenberg is an unlikely TV star. She’s a comparative anatomist with the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Physically, she is diminutive, dark-haired and dark-eyed, and not the sort of slender sylph in morphotype that TV producers seem to favor. But Joy has deep anatomical knowledge and a gift for communicating what she knows, and that led the producers of the documentary series, “Inside Nature’s Giants”, to feature Joy in their program.

Diane and I have known Joy for years as a fellow attendee of various biennial conferences hosted by the Society for Marine Mammalogy. At the latest conference, we caught up with her following the conference-end banquet. She spun us a fascinating tale of how she came to star in a television series. Joy said that she received a call from the producers early one Friday afternoon preceding a holiday weekend, asking her if she might be interested in dissecting a stranded fin whale for a television program. Sure, she said, thinking that they were prospecting and planning for a project that would be months, if not years, down the road. So the question following her “yes” response floored her: Could she be on the plane for Ireland at 6 PM? Maybe was the answer, as Joy told us that physically getting to each part of the transportation network she’d need to get her stuff and passport would stretch things. Her husband and daughter decided to join the expedition. To cut things short, Joy and family made it to Ireland, and despite various amusing misadventures, made it to the locality of the whale stranding on time. There, the documentary producers pressed her into service as liaison to the local health authorities, who had to be convinced that permitting a whale necropsy on the spot was the best way forward to safely disposing of the carcass. She also had to try to convince the police to keep people away from the body, and she reported less success on that front. In any event, Joy got to do the dissection there for the cameras, and her innate enthusiasm and ability to draw people into discussion of anatomy impressed the producers so much that she became a regular co-host on the series.

There was also the adventure of traveling back home. Diane and I have attended necropsies of cetaceans, sirenians, pinnipeds, and sea turtles, and one has to take fairly strong measures to deal with the remaining odor that clings to clothes, skin, and hair. Joy had to physically get inside a decaying whale there in Ireland, and that makes for a different scale of olfactory assault. Joy told us of taking a succession of showers with vigorous scrubbing, but in the end even her family opted to stay in a separate room at the hotel. On the plane ride back, Joy was shifted to the very rear of the plane by the flight attendants, who kindly told the other passengers that they were having trouble with the toilets to explain the stench.

The TV series, “Inside Nature’s Giants”, is slated to air six episodes on PBS, starting January 18th, 2012, at 10 PM. The series is all about charismatic megafauna, but concentrates on post-mortem anatomical examination. Check your local PBS affiliate to make sure of the schedule. Another regular on the series who should be familiar to readers is Prof. Richard Dawkins.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

3 thoughts on “No One Expects the Comparative Anatomist

  • 2012/01/10 at 8:56 am

    I have seen several of the Inside Nature’s Giants episodes on YouTube and they are excellent! It’s good to see that PBS will be airing them. The one on the giraffe is especially good to show to creationists.

    As for that putrid whale: To get rid of the odor, I wonder if carefully sponging yourself down with “Nature’s Miracle” would help? It’s an enzymatic pet pee/poop odor remover and is available on It’s also useful for laundry.

  • 2012/02/07 at 7:16 am

    A nice article about Joy Reidenberg is in the Feb 6 NY Times.

  • 2012/02/08 at 11:13 pm

    Woohoo! It isn’t often that I get to say that I scooped Carl Zimmer or the New York Times.

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