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UNDERSTANDING MARINE MAMMALS -  The Mammal Collection at UAMN has been awarded a $100,000 grant from the North Pacific Research Board, which supports peer-reviewed scientific research in the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands and Arctic Ocean to inform effective management decisions and support the sustainable use of marine resources.

The money will be used to rehouse and curate 20,000 marine mammal specimens at the museum. It includes support for one graduate and one undergraduate student to work in the collection. The grant will also allow the museum to purchase several new specimen cases.

The work will help researchers study the museum’s world-class collection of marine mammals, including specimens like this crabeater seal skull from Antarctica (photo, bottom). With over 21,000 specimens, UAMN’s marine mammal collection is larger than those of the next three largest U.S. museum collections combined.

Curator Link Olson says it is an important resource for research and growing quickly. “Due to Alaska’s vast coastline and the close working relationship among the museum, subsistence users, and both state and federal agencies, our marine mammal collection continues to grow at a rapid pace.

"This grant will enable us to properly house a backlog of specimens so that they’re more readily available to researchers.”

In the past decade alone, UAMN’s mammal collection has loaned material from more than 4,000 marine mammal specimens to scientists around the world.

Learn more about the museum’s mammal collection on our website and their new Facebook page.

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Oh, the things you need to know when you are a botanist!

This is a microtome, a machine that cuts extremely thin slices of fruit and plants to mount on slides for analysis under high powered microscopes. Microtomes can cut sections as thin as a human hair across its breadth. You can also use different dyes to stain the fruit slices for easier observation.

Our Herbaium Curator Steffi Ickert-Bond spent the summer working with one of these machines at the Smithsonian Institutes. Now she’ll be able to use the herbarium’s new microtome for research at the museum.

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BON ANNIVERSAIRE, BLUE BABE - It’s been 30 years since the UA Museum of the North unveiled a startling display in the Gallery of Alaska. Blue Babe, a 36,000 year-old mummified Alaska steppe bison, had been preserved in the Interior permafrost since the Ice Age. Gold minors discovered the specimen in 1979 and donated it to the museum.

The animal gets its name from the mineral vivianite that formed on the skin when the body reacted with the minerals in the silt during its long burial. The nickname is also a tongue-in-cheek reference to Paul Bunyan’s giant blue ox.

The gold miners were using a hydraulic hose to melt the frozen muck when they uncovered the bison’s skull. They immediately contacted the university, where scientists were able to piece together the story of what happened to Blue Babe, thanks to the clues exposed along with the melting permafrost.

Claw marks on the rear of the carcass and tooth punctures in the skin indicate that the bison was killed by an Ice Age American lion. The bison appears to have died during the fall or winter, when it was relatively cold. The carcass probably cooled rapidly and soon froze, which made it difficult for scavengers to eat.

Several years after the bison was discovered, a taxidermist from Finland arrived in Fairbanks to restore the specimen for exhibit. After treating and tanning the skin, he constructed a foundation to mount it on. The skull and bones have been preserved as part of the museum’s earth sciences collection.

Even 30 years later, the bison is a rare specimen. Blue Babe is the only known display in the world of a Pleistocene bison recovered from permafrost.

The museum recently received an additional steppe bison specimen, known as Bison Bob. It was discovered in the summer of 2012 in the thawing bank of a northern river. Earth Sciences Curator Pat Druckenmiller says it is probably the most complete specimen of any Ice Age mammal ever found in Alaska. It is only missing a single shoulder blade.

From the caption of the photo above, printed in the April 27, 1984 edition of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: VERY OLD BISON - Eirik Granqvist, chief head taxidermist for the Zoological Museum, University of Helsinski, Finland, works to restore the remains of a bison which died 36,000 years ago. The bison was preserved in permafrost until discovered three years ago. The specimen will soon be on display at the University of Alaska’s museum.

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SIZING ALASKA’S MASKED SHREWS - Lathrop High School Senior Kelly May is headed to the National Junior Science & Humanities Symposium in Ohio this month with a research project refuting an earlier study on the effects of climate change on Alaska’s shrews. For this year’s Alaska Statewide High School Science Symposium (ASHSSS), May repeated a study published in 2005 using masked shrew specimens housed at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

The original study, which concluded that shrews in Alaska are getting larger, was based entirely on data downloaded from the museum’s online database. The authors were not able to inspect each specimen. May believed that not accounting for age in the original research may have biased the results, so he tracked down each of the 650 specimens used in the original study.

Each shrew species has a unique tooth pattern. Since Alaska’s shrews can be difficult to identify, May first confirmed the specimens were the correct species (Sorex cinereus). Determining the age involved looking at the degree of wear on their teeth. Shrews do not hibernate and are active year round but they rarely live more than 15 months. Adults that survive a winter show significant tooth wear, while shrews born in the spring do not.

May learned that young shrews are significantly smaller than overwintered adults and that overwintered females are bigger than overwintered males. In contrast to previously published claims, this means that age and sex both need to be accounted for in studies of body size in shrews, according to the museum’s curator of mammals, Link Olson.

By analyzing juvenile and adult specimens separately and accounting for sex, May found that individual shrews are actually getting smaller but that more are surviving the winter, meaning that the proportion of (larger-bodied) adults in a given population is increasing. So although the two studies reached seemingly similar conclusions, May’s results shed new light on the underlying mechanism:  shrews aren’t growing to a larger body size, they’re just surviving winters better.

In June, May will travel to Philadelphia to present his research at the annual meeting of the American Society of Mammalogists. May plans to attend UAF in the fall.

DALL SHEEP SKULL - This photo was made from scans a team from the Idaho Virtualization Lab took when they came to Fairbanks over the summer. This is the skull of a juvenile female Dall sheep (UAM-15638) that was harvested in October of 1983. The skeleton was donated to the mammalogy department.

In August, the group of archaeologists and paleontologists scanned hundreds of bones from the museum’s collections for their 3D image database of every bird, fish, and mammal in the arctic. The Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic Project has worked closely with museums like the Smithsonian Institution and the Burke Museum in Seattle, but a few elusive species that couldn’t be found in those collections brought them to Fairbanks.

They took digital images of a bowhead whale skeleton, as well as the bones of polar bears, walrus, and other whales, like the narwhal.

The imaging team is now churning out photos created from those scans they took this summer. You can check their Facebook page for more examples.

Curator of Birds Kevin Winker makes the case for scientific collections, complete with citations.

Why collect and preserve whole birds? Because it is the most efficient and effective way to preserve a broad array of specimen types for present and future researchers. Skins, skeletons, frozen tissues, stomach samples, and other preparation types are in wide demand. And so are the data generated from the specimens.

(via (Re)affirming the specimen gold standard | University of Alaska Museum Department of Ornithology)

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ANCIENT DNA HELPS DETERMINE TREESHREW SPECIES

Scientists at the University of Alaska Museum of the North are using ancient DNA from museum specimens housed at several U.S. museums to find out whether one particular species of treeshrew (Tupaia glis) is actually several different species.

Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, Mammals Curator Link Olson and his colleagues are using both DNA and skeletal evidence. Their work is featured on the cover of the current issue of the Journal of Mammalogy.

“We tested our own previous hypothesis based solely on DNA extracted from historic museum specimens up to 120 years old in the museum’s Ancient DNA Laboratory,” Olson said.

The scientists obtained skeletal data by X-raying the specimens to accurately measure the foot bones. “We found congruence between the two types of data and were consequently able to resurrect three species from synonymy, including the one gracing the cover. This served as a test case, and we anticipate many more treeshrew species will be rescued from taxonomic oblivion in the near future.”

The scientists hope their work will aid conservation and management decisions in Southeast Asia, one of the world’s hottest biodiversity hotspots that is undergoing rapid and accelerating rates of habitat destruction.

 

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BISON BOB - One of the treasures featured at the museum’s first Night Out at UAMN event is an extinct steppe bison discovered by UAF scientists on an eroding riverbank last summer. The creature died almost 40,000 years ago during the last ice age. It was preserved in permafrost.

This isn’t the first time that’s happened. Blue Babe, a popular specimen on display in the museum’s Gallery of Alaska, was discovered in the 1970s by a Fairbanks gold miner. But Bison Bob’s skeleton is more complete, with hair that lay compressed under heavy arctic soil for so long it now looks almost felted.

Earth Sciences Curator Pat Druckenmiller says probably the most complete specimen of any Ice Age mammal ever found in Alaska. It is only missing a single shoulder blade.

“It is in immaculate condition, as if it died only a few years ago,” he says. “When an animal dies, predators/scavengers recycle the specimen so that practically nothing remains. All you might get are bits of solid bones. While thousands of Ice Age mammal bones have been collected in Alaska, 99.9% of them are just isolated individual bones that have been transported by animals or action of erosion. Bison Bob died for reasons we currently can’t tell, but was not scavenged. That is very rare.”

Earth Sciences Collection Manager Julie Rousseau is preparing some of the bones to go on display during tonight’s event. Visitors will be able to get answers to some frequent questions, like why the bones have a blue tint. (A: The blue mineral vivianite formed when the bones reacted with minerals in the silt.) Or whether bones preserved in permafrost are actually fossils. (I’ll let Julie and Pat answer that one for you.)

The steppe bison lived in Alaska thousands of years ago when the landscape was grassy, co-existing with mammoth, musk oxen, horse, and caribou. Even lions. The species was at least a foot taller than the buffalo we know today.

This BLM specimen will be an invaluable resource to researchers who will be able to study the materials collected from the bones.

Still think anomalocaris was the top predator of trilobites? Whitey Hagadorn, the geology curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, will present research debunking that theory at a free public lecture Friday at noon in the museum auditorium.

Read all about his research in this story on Wired.com.

“We found that it’s extremely unlikely Anomalocaris could eat most trilobites,” said James Whitey Hagadorn, the research team’s leader and a paleontologist at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. “It couldn’t close its mouth all of the way, its mouth was too soft to crush trilobite shells.”

(via Giant Vicious-Looking Ancient Shrimp Was a Disappointing Wimp | Wired Science | Wired.com)

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Fairbanks Film Premiere – After all the planning, hundreds of hours spent imagining whales as characters with distinctive markings and personalities, working with film narrators and scientists and observers, after the coordination of funders and experts and community members, the months of rendering on computers tucked away in offices, it’s time. Arctic Currents: A Year in the Life of the Bowhead Whale, the museum’s new animated film, is ready for the big screen.

This 25-minute film tells the story of the annual migration of bowhead whales. The species spends its life searching for food among the ice floes of Arctic waters. They are elusive, and yet are a major influence on the culture of the Inupiat and Yupik people. Bowhead whales live a long time, as many as 120 years and perhaps much longer.

The film takes its narrative and title from the 2013 calendar edited by University of Alaska Fairbanks oceanographer Steve Okkonen, a teaching tool designed to portray the science and natural history of bowhead whales. The museum made the film using scientific data, photographs for inspiration, and lots of creative license.

Narration is presented in English, Inupiat, and St. Lawrenece Island Yupik. You can read about the creation of the film on our blog. A free screening will be presented on Friday, Jan. 16 at 5:30pm at the museum. The film will also be available for download and as a DVD.

Congratulations to the talented team behind the film:

Narrated by Chris Koonooka, Fannie Akpik, and Pausauraq Jana Harcharek
Writer/Director: Roger Topp
Producer: Steve Okkonen
Animation and Modeling: Hannah Foss
Sound Recording: Kelsey Gobroski

Photo above: Athabascan beadworker Lilly Pitka of Fort Yukon, Alaska made these dog blankets in 1926. Dogs would be decorated with fancy blankets like this during special times of year, when families would come in from traplines in wilderness areas of the state to gather together in celebration.

ALL ABOUT THE DOGS – Dog sledding, or dog mushing, has a long tradition in Alaska. It was used by early residents as a means of transportation. Today, rural residents still rely on dog teams to hunt and travel in remote areas, as do hobbyists who enjoy exploring the backcountry with their highly-trained athletes.  

Alaska also hosts a variety of big-name races. Thousands of fans follow along as mushers spend days competing in long distance wilderness events like the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest. There are also sprint mushing races that are run through the streets of the state’s largest cities.

In the earliest days of tourism in Alaska, visitors found depictions of men and their dogs to be extremely compelling. They sought to bring home reminders of these people and their trusted companions of the trail. Many of these items were created by Alaska Native artists as souvenirs.

Luke Saganna carved this hunter and dog team (below) sometime around 1984 in Barrow. It is carved from caribou antler and has sinew tow lines and harnesses.

The museum’s history & ethnology collection features thousands of items that depict the Native cultures of Alaska. Many of them feature dog-related carvings or depictions. Jotham Seppilu is a Yupik artist from Savoonga, St. Lawrence Island. He carved this piece from walrus ivory.

This year in Alaska, the famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race had to move its restart location from Willow, near Anchorage, to Fairbanks in the Interior due to a lack of snowfall. That’s more than 500 miles away from the ceremonial start location in the state’s largest city. And it means an extra day for mushers to scramble to get ready for the race. Fairbanks officials expect hundreds, if not thousands, of race-related visitors for the event.

Some of them might be in search of something to commemorate the experience, such as souvenirs or artwork like this piece of mineralized walrus ivory carved by Greg Stradiotto in 1984.

Even though this has been a relatively mild winter temperature-wise, many mushers and visitors will be sporting head gear like this marten fur “trapper-style” hat used extensively in Alaska. The flaps can be worn down or up, depending on the weather.

This depiction of a dog team and driver was commercially produced and marketed to tourists.

This photo of the Transit of Venus was taken by Chris Cannon, who has worked in our education department for the past few years to bring a portable planetarium to kids across the state so they could see what’s in the sky. Now he’s working on a graduate degree, so he can document what’s known about cultural and astronomical references to Alaska.

Tenrec Research - Kathryn Everson, a PhD student in the museum’s department of mammalogy was recently awarded a prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation. Her dissertation research focuses on the evolution, speciation, and conservation of Madagascar’s tenrecs, which underwent a spectacular adaptive radiation on the island continent much like Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos. She will travel to Madagascar next year to conduct field work and collaborate with Malagasy colleagues.

1) Why do you think your grant was funded? Was there something about your work that speaks to larger research or policy issues? 

I am fortunate to conduct my PhD research on a very charismatic system: the mammals of Madagascar. Madagascar is renowned for its incredible biodiversity. One hundred percent of Madagascar’s native terrestrial mammals are found nowhere else on earth. Unfortunately, that means these animals are extremely vulnerable to habitat destruction, so there is an urgent need to document the diversity and evolutionary history before it’s too late. My research at UAMN will help answer those questions. The research proposal is the most important part of the application, but NSF Graduate Research Fellows are also chosen based on their personal statements and letters of recommendation. 

2) What is a tenrec? How did you find out about these animals?

Tenrecs are small to medium-sized (from 2-2000 grams) mammals and they vary quite a bit in appearance, behavior, and ecology. For example, there are hedgehog tenrecs, which can roll up into spiny balls, mole tenrecs, which are great diggers, and the web-footed tenrec, which is well adapted to a semi-aquatic lifestyle. 

The common names of tenrecs (like hedgehog tenrec, shrew tenrec, or mole tenrec) are somewhat misleading. Tenrecs are more closely related to elephants and aardvarks than hedgehogs, shrews, or moles. Three kinds of tenrecs are found in equatorial Africa, but the rest of the 35 currently recognized species are only found on Madagascar.

My advisor, Curator of Mammals Link Olson, studied tenrecs for his PhD at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum of Natural History. His research showed that there are many more species of tenrecs than we thought. My own research will use genomics to determine just how many there are, how recently they’ve formed, and whether past episodes of forest contraction caused by climate change contributed to their formation. 

3) It sounds like travel and working with different cultures will be a large portion of your research. What’s it like doing science is a completely new environment? 

Madagascar is a great place to study evolution, but it can be a real challenge. Alaska isn’t exactly next door! Fortunately, museum collections (particularly frozen tissues) allow me to answer many research questions from right here at UAM. So far all of my research has been conducted at the museum’s genetics lab at UAF, but I am excited to visit Madagascar next year. It will be great to see tenrecs in their natural habitat and to interact with Malagasy scientists. 

4) What does it mean to have the support of the museum? How important is it to you to be able to work with the curator and in the museum’s labs? 

Like I said before, the museum’s frozen tissue collection is an integral part of my research. With these tissues I am able to compare DNA sequences from many species and populations of tenrec. And if I ever need to extract DNA from older museum specimens that may not have frozen tissues, the museum’s Ancient DNA Lab will be an invaluable resource. It is also great to work with the curators at UAM, who are all knowledgeable about my research and always willing to help.

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RHYOLITE RESEARCH – An article written by Sam Coffman, a research archaeologist at the UA Museum of the North, and former acting archaeology curator Jeff Rasic has been accepted for publication in the May issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science. The research highlights ongoing efforts to geochemically characterize rhyolitic artifacts housed at the museum. The researchers are also interested in pinpointing the source of the material to find out where it came from on the landscape.

Rhyolite is a volcanic rock. The texture ranges from glassy to a soft surface that looks like hardened sand. The fine-grained volcanic rocks commonly found in Interior Alaska are a good candidate for this research because the region has a long record of human occupation, stretching back to at least 14,000 years ago. That gives archaeologists an opportunity to address changes in the ways tool stones were manufactured and transferred among groups of people.

All the artifacts in the photos above are made of rhyolite. The two in the top photo are a retouched flake and projectile point fragment. The objects in the bottom photo (pictured with a scale bar) are from an archaeological research site in the Nenana River Valley. Those are three biface fragments and a flake.

In addition to this publication, Coffman was awarded a 2015 Murie Science and Learning Center Fellowship for his project titled, “Geochemical Characterization of Rhyolite Sources and Artifacts from National Park Service Lands, Alaska.” The project will have both field and laboratory components and will seek to identify the physical geological sources of rhyolite as well as geochemically characterize existing collections from Denali National Park and Preserve and Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve.