animal bones!

Yesterday, Raspberry and I got a fantastic chance to tour the World Museum’s zoology collection. Two weekends ago, while at an activity at the museum, I’d met the curator of the zoology collection, Tony, and asked if they do tours of it. He seemed receptive and offered me his card and I emailed him on the weekend. Yesterday in the morning, I received a reply that suggested we could see the collection that very afternoon or the following Thursday. Having nothing planned, I jumped at the opportunity to be spontaneous (although, Raspberry had woken up at 6:30am and I was worried she might be grumpy but I figured that if I planned the tour for the early afternoon, she’d be all right). I was so excited for the visit myself that I thought my head was going to explode.

I psyched Raspberry up for our visit by asking her if she wanted to watch videos on The Brain Scoop while I busied myself with chores. Her favourites are the one where a wolf gets gutted and where they find most of a bear skeleton. Needless to say, she gravitated right to those, buying me time to put the groceries away and whip up a quick lunch. And of course, they got her excited about animal bones and the fact that no one else was going on this tour of the collection but us.

The vertebrate zoology collection is housed in the basement of the World Museum, in a room down an archaic looking hallway. I was actually a little surprised that it was just one room but then again, it could be just that Tony showed us only the one room, or that their collection is small enough to fit compactly in there. Right when we got inside, I noticed the collection of antlered and horned animal heads mounted on the wall on a grid, just like I’ve seen at other museums like the ROM and the Nature Museum. Tony pointed out the elephant skulls on top of these rows of unassuming metal cabinets. They were there only because there was nowhere else to put them. Dead as they are, I felt sorry for the skulls for not having a proper home and being relegated to the wherever there was room. Raspberry wanted to know what was in the metal cabinets so Tony opened one of them to reveal birds, each in a plastic bag. They all had their eyeballs removed, replaced with cotton, thereby giving each a hollow, creepy look. Raspberry didn’t appreciate the smell of whatever chemicals had been used to treat the birds to prevent any infestation. She was quick to move on and when asked what she wanted to see instead, her instant reply was “ANGLERFISH!”

When we were at the museum on the weekend, I was told that there was an anglerfish skeleton in their collection. It wasn’t displayed in their natural history centre, so it was presumably in the basement. Now, we love anglerfish from the time we learnt about them back in the winter when we were obsessed for a few weeks about the ocean dark zones. The idea of being able to see a real skeleton of an anglerfish, a creature that lives a few thousand metres below the surface, was just mind-blowing. And Tony did deliver — the massive jaws of an anglerfish, coupled with a few ribs, mounted on a stand, stashed away in a wooden cupboard. I was surprised by how large it actually was. For some reason, in my mind they seemed like they would be smaller. I was surprised by the smaller set of jaws set within its mouth too, as if the main ones weren’t enough. I stroked its teeth, marvelling at their pointiness and secretly (or not-so-secretly) excited that I was touching the skull of an anglerfish.

Beside the cupboard with the anglerfish were ones housing the skeletons of tortoises and turtles and beside those, those of crocodiles and alligators, as well as snakes and lizards. Raspberry delighted in opening and closing the plain white boxes to discover what was inside. Much of the boxes contained repeats of the same thing, but perhaps of different species — turtle skulls, parts of a tortoise, crocodile skulls, snake skeletons, quite a few crocodile eggs. I was amused that some boxes had tentative labels like “tortoise?” because they couldn’t find anyone to positively identify the species. It’s too costly to perform DNA analysis on it and there appears to be little motivation to do so, hence the question marks remain. There were bony plates from turtle bellies and hard, bony alligator scales, both of which surprised me, as I’d always assumed turtle bellies were made of soft tissue rather than bone and alligator scales were just a thicker version of fish scales. Who knew!

We moved on to a cupboard with the skeletons of large flightless birds and wow, they’ve got quite a handful of rhea sternums. I don’t think I’ve seen too many bird skeletons before so I was taken aback by how large their sternums were, compared to humans. I’d honestly expected a larger, maybe slightly wider version than the human sternum but some of them looked the size of small plates. There was a lone ostrich leg (not just the bone), still attached to the thigh, just in a plastic bag, wedged in the drawer. Like the elephant skulls, I felt bad for it languishing forgotten in a drawer in a cabinet. I came upon a rhea sternum from 1850 and it’s just so wild to think that the bird lived 150+ years ago. There are quite a number of bones in the collection from that long ago, acquired from universities or hunting expeditions, way back before anyone gave a lick about conservation. These days, the rate of the expansion of their collection is much slower, so much so that when the person in charge of preparing the bones left (retired?), they didn’t replace him/her and chose to outsource any skeletal preparation to a commercial company instead. Sad. For that matter, the curator, who was originally trained in ornithology, said his job mainly focuses on documentation and cataloguing. I’d expected a lot of handling of specimens but what do I know?

We got to briefly look at horse skulls (holy shit, they’re huge!) as well as those of a lion, hyena and bear. There was also skeletons of a polar bear and penguin, but we didn’t get to them. By this time, Raspberry was getting hungry and making her hunger known — she’d only had two-thirds of a pancake and some yogurt for lunch and I couldn’t get her to eat any more as she said her stomach hurt. She was becoming more and more disinterested in the bones while I was trying to cram in as much as possible in the few minutes I knew I had before she could potentially become disruptive. All in all, we lasted about an hour, which I suppose would be the average when you have a five-year-old in a room full of drawers with bones. But, we will certainly be back in probably a couple of months. We only just grazed the collection and I was too busy asking questions and marvelling over all the specimens to take decent pictures. Having to lift Raspberry to see the specimens in the higher drawers also precluded taking pictures. Ah well. It’s only just happened but I’m already excited about our next visit. Next time, we’ll have a specific goal as to what we’d like to see and oh yeah, I’ll make sure the kid is well-fed too.


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