In an unassuming building off of West Johnson Street, sits the remains of around 750,000 animal specimens for scientific research in the UW Zoological Museum. One of five museum collections on the UW Madison campus, the collection provides hands-on research material for universities across the country.
While, yes, it is considered a museum, it isn’t open to the public. Instead, the rooms are filled with bones, animal skins, and stuffed mounts sitting in highly organized cabinets,
Laura Monahan is the Associate Director and Curator of the Zoological Museum. She showed me around their large collection earlier today.
“We gather specimens here from graduate student and faculty research,” Monahan says. “We also get specimens from some wildlife rehabilitation centers around the state, and we do get some animals from zoos and other captive facilities.”
All the specimens in the museum were donated for the express purpose of research. And, the Zoological Museum gathers the animals from roadkill, hunting accidents, or zoo animals that die of natural causes. No animals are killed for specimens here.
But what exactly do they do with the massive collection of bones and skins? Some stay right on campus, where biology, archeology, or any other type of student or researcher can study them to learn the ins and the outs of most any living animal.
The museum also connects with research organizations across the world, and if they have something in their collection that someone needs, they can ship it off to wherever it is needed on loan.
The collection includes almost any animals you can imagine, from mammals and reptiles, to fish and invertebrates. They even have some extinct animals, such as carrier pigeons, which went extinct back in 1914.
That’s because, Monahan says, the museum is as old as the university system itself.
“This museum and the other natural history collections on campus were actually initiated at the very first Board of Regents meeting in the 1840s,” Monahan says. “Before the university was really a university, the Regents met and they decided to make this university, they decided to begin collecting for a natural history cabinet, which is what museums were at the time. They hired some folks to start collecting, and as buildings were built up around campus, the collection settled in Science Hall.”
The museum stayed in Science Hall for just a couple decades in the 1800s. In 1884, the building burned down, taking the entire natural history cabinet with it. So, Assistant Curator Edward Birge had to start the collection from scratch.
“Birge was a faculty member in the biology department, and he was curator of the museum cabinet at the time,” Monahan says. “So he started purchasing things that were lost in the fire. You can’t really replace something that’s lost, but he needed to buy new specimens to teach and do research. This is actually an original Birge purchase…”
We’re standing in front of a full-sized sea turtle skeleton, modeled to show exactly what the turtle looks like in life. Birge purchased the sea turtle in the 1880s, and is still used to teach students the difference between sea turtles and tortoises today. In case you were wondering, tortoises have a shell that wraps all the way around their entire body, while turtles have a small gap between their top and bottom shell, although the two are similar in size.
We began our tour in the bone collection room. Here, rows and rows of shelves were lined with small shoebox-like boxes that contained an entire animal. Well, all the bones of an animal at least.
Each box is meticulously cataloged, with the common and scientific names, sex, location, and serial number for each individual animal. This way, if someone requests a specific bone from a specific animal, someone with the museum can immediately find the exact part they are looking for.
“This is actually a really good exercise for students interested in anatomy, or comparative anatomy, because they are handling every single part of this skeletal individual,” Monahan says. “For us, it makes the collection much more useful. For example, if someone wants to study, say, the humerus of a gray wolf, we can pull them out of every single box, and get them back into the right boxes.”
Even the individual bones themselves are recorded, with each one given a catalog number written in tiny letters.
Unlike the sea turtle we looked at before, most of their collection is not modeled in any particular way, and sits loose in boxes. That’s because, while the fully articulated skeletons are much more interesting to look at, it’s easier to study the individual bones, which is their purpose at the UW Zoological Museum.
The collection doesn’t just contain bones, but animal skins as well. The skins have all of their internal organs removed, along with most of the bones, and are stuffed with cotton to make them easier to handle.
The skins are, like the bones, usually not modeled in any way, like a taxidermy you may see in other museums. They’re kept in large, climate controlled cabinets because they’re more susceptible to deterioration.
“It’s imperative that these skins are in these cabinets, because these cabinets create a micro-environment,” Monahan says. “Even if there are temperature and relative humidity changes in this space, which there are, if we were to monitor the inside and the outside of the case, you would see that those fluctuations happen but are much less significant, which is important because it’s the fluctuations that are really damaging, These are organic specimens, so they will expand and contract as the temperature and relative humidity change, and that will cause them to crack over time.”
The final type of specimen they hold at the museum is fluid specimens, the type you’d see sitting in preserving fluid in a science classroom. These are kept in the basement, where shelves and shelves of fish, invertebrates, rodents, and anything else that can fit in a jar sit ready for study.
But how do these specimens go from fully sized animals to separate and cleaned skins and bones? The answer… isn’t pretty. They start in a preparation room, where they skin and deflesh the specimens.
“In here we have two walk-in freezers, and we freeze all of our specimens when they come in. As I said we skin and deflesh all the specimens here, and that happens on the bench right in front of us. These are specimens that have been defleshed and will go to our flesh eating beetle colony after they dry.”
Yes, you heard that correctly. There are a few ways to remove the small remaining bits of flesh from a bone, but the easiest and cleanest way is a dermestid beetle colony. Kept in a dark basement a few blocks away, the bones are placed in the beetle enclosure for several days.
Amid the loud hums of the heater and humidifier, needed in order to create the perfect environment for happy beetles, thousands of beetles in several enclosures crawl over what was once a goose, or a large bull, or a deer.
“These are the adult beetles, and the hairy, wormy looking ones are the larvae,” Monahan says. “So you can see the tiny larvae getting bigger and bigger, and then there’s the adults. They do their feeding at the larva stage, and as an adult they’re retired and they’re laying eggs.”
Museum workers have to be extra careful around the beetles, because if they were to get to their finished, completed specimens, they could easily eat them. That’s also why the skins are kept in special cabinets, and why the beetle colony is kept several blocks away.
Nobody said making specimens for scientific research was pretty.
The museum isn’t typically open for public tours. Monahan says that’s because they they just don’t have the staff – currently, the museum is staffed by two full-time employees.
Even so, Monahan says that the museum is an important research and educational resource. That’s why, when she first began working for the museum 17 years ago, she began to develop ways for students to experience the collection for themselves.
“Because we have all these natural history collections, that I didn’t even know existed as an undergrad (at UW Madison), I designed a course that I would have loved, that I would have wanted to take,” Monahan says. “I just taught it for the 15th year this year. It allows students, for two credits, to participate in the class and visit the other natural history collections on campus. We also visit the Arboretum and talk about living collections. The students have the option for one additional credit to intern at one of the institutions, which supports what they’re doing in the class, while doing hands-on work in a collection and learning about what collections are all about. That has been a really good opportunity for me to share with people why museums are really great.”
Photo courtesy: Nate Wegehaupt / WORT News Team