Skulls, Skins, Jaws!

On Friday, October 11th, I visited the Museum of Zoology for the second time. It was another exhilarating adventure filled with photographing skulls, connecting jaws to skulls, examining and feeling animal skins and even a photo op with a full-sized grizzly bear!

I spent several hours in the lab and was given permission to take the skulls from storage and reattach the jaws that are stored separately from the larger animal skulls. The specimens made available to me were: rhino, giraffe, red panda, lemur, gorilla, bobcat and zebra. I observed the huge opening where the rhino’s horn would have been found. Poaching has escalated in many places and continues to put them at risk of extinction. To imagine a rhino roaming freely in the wild only to be cut down by a poacher who chops its horn from its head for monetary reward is disheartening. 

The giraffe skull revealed the two horn like structures called ossicones. Female ossicones are smaller and have a small tuft of fur on top, while male ossicones are bald on top and sometimes used to fight other male giraffes. The gender of the specimen observed was unknown. Young giraffes have porous ossicones. The specimen reveals the porosity of the horns with the skin and fur no longer attached.

I examined and touched several animal furs. To be able to examine these up close and to fully experience the textures and colors is a helpful resource for painting. I learned that people can tell what season some animals have died based on how much and how soft their fur is. This explains why they are more vulnerable to hunting during the winter seasons when their furs are at their thickest and fullest.

Traveling Way Back in Time

On a rainy, dreary day, I decided to visit the University’s Museum of Natural History at its new location. The entrance to the building is quite impressive and as soon as you walk in to the main lobby, you are greeted by the huge fossils of two mastodons. The museum is apparently the only one in the world where you can see a female and male mastodon side by side. Adjacent to this exhibit is the fossil prep lab which was not occupied but I could see through the glass what scientists are currently working on. I can imagine the work is painstakingly slow but through their efforts the museum continues to showcase fossils millions of years old from various times geologic time periods.

In figure painting and drawing classes, we learn that understanding the skeletal structure of the human body is essential to creating the human figure in any pose. The skeleton helps us to know where to attach muscles and helps with proportion. This would also apply to drawing animals; the skeletal structure of each individual species is different from one another. How an animal moves can be understood by examining the bone structure and joints. For example, the structure of the pelvis of animal can give us clues as to how they walked. I took a lot of photographs of the skeletons that were on display.

Having the opportunity to walk back in time, provided me with creative inspiration as I continue to think about de-extinction and weigh the pros and cons of resurrecting ancient extinct species. When I look up at the mastodons, I am overwhelmed by the sheer size of these magnificent creatures. What scene might I create around a resurrected mastodon in a modern society? The surrealistic possibilities are endless.


The Truth About Bringing Jurassic Park to Life

Is it even possible to bring back dinosaurs? Or is it just a fantasy? This question continues to mesmerize people since the movie series Jurassic Park hit the big screen. In this fantastical tale, scientists bring back a variety of dinosaurs by cloning them from blood found in mosquitoes fossilized in amber. For now, it is not possible to bring back dinosaurs and whether we should or not is a question to explore for another day!

Dinosaurs roamed the earth about 65 million years ago making their fossils some of the oldest to be found. Scientists hoped to be able to extract DNA from dinosaur bones, but researchers may never be able to extract genetic material that old. So bringing a T-Rex back might remain impossible. However, new research is showing that DNA can survive longer than previously thought. DNA from samples as old as 800,000 years have been extracted. So maybe some day we can clone a woolly mammoth. However, over time, cells that contain DNA eventually start to degrade as they get older. Once the oxygen levels change in the cell, parts of the DNA is lost. The only way to properly preserve DNA over an extended amount of time is to flash freeze the cell. Once a specimen is fossilized, DNA cannot be extracted. Oftentimes, DNA extracted from bone is degraded by multiple factors over the passage of time. 

Scientists have been able to clone species but cloning extinct species remains a challenge. The only extinct animal that has ever been cloned died minutes after birth. Even if technology improves and scientists are able to clone extinct species, additional problems exist. What surrogate mother would carry the embryo of an extinct species and what additional problems will surface? 

We never expected to be able to land on the surface of the Moon. Right now it seems daunting whether we will ever be able to clone an extinct animal successfully. But the impossible can become the possible. Time will tell!

Detroit Zoo

I had the opportunity to visit the Detroit Zoo with the purpose of observing and taking photographs of the animals. I had not been to the Detroit Zoo since I was a young child. I was pleased to discover that the Detroit Zoological Society focuses on several wildlife conversation initiatives. I have always struggled with the idea of zoos and the thought of animals being held captive for public entertainment, but I have come to embrace zoos that rescue and rehabilitate wildlife, support conservation and educational initiatives, and work to repopulate endangered species.

One of the first exhibits I encountered was a room filled with animal sculptures made from illegal snare trap wire. The exhibit highlighted the conservation initiatives focused on eliminating the use of illegal snares in Uganda where poaching is a serious problem. The “Snares to Wares” program was established to provide African families a means to sell these sculptures as a source of income rather than poaching animals to provide for their families. This initiative hopes to become a model for other places around the world.

Brand new to the zoo is the recently opened tiger exhibit. Two of the male tigers were out and right up close to the glass. I could observe the texture of their fur, the unique composition of their stripes, the substantial size of their paws and the beauty of their sweeping tails. The female was not to be seen; she is apparently not a fan of the male tigers! Tigers are critically endangered; it is estimated that there are only 3,500 tigers remaining in the wild worldwide. To think this magnificent creature could one day become extinct is unimaginable.