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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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Zooarchaeology

Zooarchaeology is the study of animals in how they relate to human activities in the past. Discovering middens or waste piles of bone and other debris can help determine the species of animals harvested in the past for food, shelter, clothing, or tools. Looking through the bones and identifying each and every one of them to the best of the zooarchaeologist’s ability can allow for an understanding of the breadth of diet in both the number and species utilized. If there is any depth to the midden, careful collection and separation layers can help identify a change in harvest activities over time. From these data notions of climate and environmental change can be created or corroborated with other data. 

The first order of business is to separate each bone into the appropriate class. This generally means mammal, birds, and fish. In more southerly regions than Alaska this could also require reptilian or amphibian categories. This is often done by gauging the porosity and texture of the bone. Mammal bones are usually more dense, bird bones are generally hollow, and fish bone have a woody texture.

Once separated a more intensive identification can me made In order to determine the genus or species of the animals present. Zooarchaeologists must have a comparative collection for animals thought to be found in their study area. Sometimes this can be done with an articulated skeleton, such as the juvenile sea lion seen above. Although generally more helpful is a comparative collection in which similar elements (femur, humerus, etc) are kept together labeled with an identification number that ties the bone to the known species of its origin.

Manuals can also be helpful especially when identifying specific features on the bone or when a representative sample of a suspected species is not obtainable. These collections can get rather large and can fill up an entire room, but after many hours of poring over both the known and unknown collections, the process becomes a bit easier.

The problem with a known collection is that it always seems to be limited. There are always more species to be obtained. This is why zooarchaeologists are always out looking for more specimen to add to their collection. Generally this comes in the form of roadkill which often leaves broken or partial skeletons, but sometimes an animal is nice enough to have died unscathed. It’s those unknown causes of death when you wear gloves, boys and girls.

A special thanks goes to those listed below for allowing me access to these wonderful bones:

  1. Katmai National Park & Preserve (National Park Service)
  2. Alaska Consortium of Zooarchaeologists (University of Alaska, Anchorage)
  3. University of Alaska Museum of the North (Univeristy of Alaska, Fairbanks)
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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.

Effie the Woolly Mammoth: University of Alaska Museum of the North

The Discovery

In August of 1948, an unusual fossil was washed out of the much at a gold mine located on Fairbanks Creek, north of Fairbanks. It was the head, foreleg, and shoulder of a very young Pleistocene mammoth. It was nicknamed “Effie,” after the Fairbanks Exploration (FE) branch of the United States Smelting, Refining, & Mining Company. A carbon 14 date from Effie’s skin indicated that it died approximately 21,300 years ago.

Scientific Importance

The preservation of the skin, muscles, and connective tissue makes Effie the best preserved mammoth to be found in North America. These remains have furnished comparative material for the identification of blood stains on Alaskan stone artifacts that were used to kill and/or butcher mammoths. In addition, DNA analysis from Effie’s tissue will help us understand to what extent the breeding lines of mammoth have diverged from a common ancestor.

Preservation

Effie was in several parts when discovered. The mummy was the carefully embalmed, and the tears stitched together by University of Alaska scientists. The tearing was probably due to scavenging before burial. Effie would have been eaten almost entirely because the bones of such a young animal are soft and poorly ossified. The tip of the trunk was missing because it was eaten off. It is difficult to estimate the season of death because Effie lacked teeth, hair, and internal organs. Burial would have taken place during spring when snow was melting or possibly after a rare summer thunderstorm. It would have taken very little silt to bury this mammoth because it was so small. The skull and the rest of the skin were probably dragged away and not covered by silt, or the miners did not recognize the remains as they were washed away.

Age and the Circumstances of Death

Effie’s size is the only clue to its age. An elephant in its first year averages about a meter at the shoulder, and based on this, Effie probably died during its first year. Elephants lose about half of their young during the first couple of years, and this probably held true for mammoths as well. Few elephant calves are actually killed by predators as the mother is too good a protector. However, since the female has to nurse the calf through its first winter, her condition is critical. Any female who produces less than optimum amounts and quality of milk is likely to lose her young. In this case, the young would be more likely to catch some disease, have an accident, or simply starve.

Conclusion

Effie was probably not killed by a predator, but died from malnutrition or an accident. The carcass would have been protected by the mother for a few days, then abandoned. Scavengers such as wolves, wolverines, or lions would have moved in, tearing through the tough skin to get to the other, more choice parts. Effie’s death was not unusual. It was a natural and common part of the mammoth’s life history. The death of such a young animal had little impact on the mammoth population as the mother soon came into estrous and had another young a couple of years later. The gestation period of elephants is about 22 months, a trait fairly constant in proboscideans. Mammoths probably had similar gestation periods.

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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)

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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The narwhal brought them here. A group of archaeologists and paleontologists from Idaho State University are at the UA Museum of the North this month, scanning bones 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. The UAMN has a bowhead whale skeleton, including a skull on display in the Gallery of Alaska, as well as the bones of polar bears, walrus, and other whales, like the narwhal.

The narwhal lives year-round in the arctic. Closely related to the beluga, male nawhals feature a long, straight tusk that is actually an elongated upper canine tooth. This specialized predator feeds on deep water fish at depths of up to 1500 meters under the ice.

Now that the imaging team has had a chance to see the range of specimens included in the museum’s mammal collection, they are planning future grant-funded projects to document them.

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A DAY AT AN ARCHAEOLOGICAL DIG - A crew from the University of Alaska Museum of the North returned to the Noatak National Preserve in Northern Alaska this summer to continue research into several sites where rock art has been found at stone-ringed communal houses.

Archaeologists working in the 1960s and 70s found boulders at three different lakefront sites. The rock art remained on location, undisturbed for almost 40 years, until a team from the UA Museum of the North and the National Park Service assembled to create a permanent record.

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Dating Blue Babe — For the past three decades, the museum has proudly shared the story of Blue Babe, a mummified Alaska steppe bison preserved in the Interior permafrost since the Ice Age. Collagen from the animal’s well-preserved skin was originally dated to 36,000 years ago in the 1980s. But that number will soon be a much more precise understanding of this celebrated specimen.

The UAMN Earth Sciences and Archaeology Departments are collaborating with the Center for Applied Isotope Studies at the University of Georgia to radiocarbon date samples from Blue Babe. CAIS is analyzing hide, hair and bone collagen from those samples with the most recent state-of-the-art techniques using an accelerator mass spectrometer. AMS radiocarbon dating provides more precise and potentially older age estimates than earlier methods in use during the 1980s.

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 story and science behind finding Blue Babe and reconstructing the bison’s life and death can be found in R. Dale Guthrie’s natural history classic from 1990, Frozen Fauna of the Mammoth Steppe: The Story of Blue Babe.

Visitors can also see Blue Babe in the museum’s Gallery of Alaska, the only known display in the world of a Pleistocene bison recovered from permafrost.

Explore the legacy of Blue Babe in this historic article on the university’s website.

Photo Captions, clockwise from top left:

1) Dr. Alex Cherkinsky of CAIS prepares a bone sample from Blue Babe for chemical pretreatment to demineralize the bone and retain the collagen for AMS radiocarbon dating.

2)The samples are being prepared for chemical pretreatment.

3) The accelerator at the CAIS used to separate and measure the carbon isotopes (12C, 13C and 14C) in a sample.

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Using the Past to See the future of Pacific walruses - Thousands of specimens housed at the University of Alaska Museum of the North will be used as part of a $1.7 million grant to study population trends in Pacific walrus. Curator of Mammals Link Olson likens the collection to a “vast library.” The books are the specimens themselves—some thousands of years old—collected over the past century by naturalists, archaeologists, biologists and subsistence hunters.

Olson, together with Tara Fulton from the University of Alberta, will use cutting-edge  technology in the museum’s Ancient DNA Lab to extract minute quantities of DNA from walrus specimens going back two millennia, providing insight into the overall genetic health of the species.

The Ancient DNA Lab, built as part of the museum’s expansion, is the only dedicated lab of its kind in the state of Alaska and one of the only ancient DNA labs in a museum in which the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) has never been conducted, allowing for a facility that’s uncontaminated by copies of the genetic code.

Since the lab’s completion, Olson has been able to leverage several NSF grants to study, among other things, the genetics of Southeast Asian treeshrews, South American primates, and now walruses—all using material tens, hundreds, and even thousands of years old.

The Pacific walrus project brings together scientists from the U.S. and Canada with expertise in genetics, archeology, chemistry, ecology, and ethnohistory to study the marine mammals, whose sea ice habitat has been markedly receding in recent years. Pacific walruses are critical to subsistence in many coastal villages.

Nicole Misarti of the UAF Institute of Northern Engineering and Lara Horstmann-Dehn, an assistant professor in the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, will obtain stable isotope, trace element, and hormone data from the same specimens to look for shifts in feeding ecology and foraging location as well as any associated stress responses.

Anne Jensen, an archaeologist and senior scientist at UIC Science LLC in Barrow, will collect additional walrus samples from archaeological repositories and help the team interpret their findings in a broader cultural and historical context, as will the numerous Alaska Native organizations participating in the study.

In addition, a translator will search through hundreds of interviews archived at the UAF Rasmuson Library that contain traditional ecological knowledge of Pacific walruses. Even high school students will have a chance to participate in the project through the Rural Alaska Honors Institute program at UAF and in Barrow.

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