uamn

3

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.

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.

4

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.

10

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)
3

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.

4

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)

ARTIFACTS RETURN AFTER A CENTURY – More than 3,000 artifacts collected 100 years ago near the North Slope village of Kaktovik are back in Alaska as a result of a collaborative effort among the community, archaeological researchers, ExxonMobil Corp. and the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

The artifacts excavated at Barter Island were preserved at the Canadian Museum of History after being collected by Diamond Jenness in 1914 as part of the Canadian Arctic Expedition. They are now on loan to the museum after a joint effort of several organizations engaged in fulfilling part of a cultural resources agreement outlined under ExxonMobil’s Point Thomson Project.

PHOTO ABOVE: From left, UA Museum of the North Archaeology Curator Josh Reuther and Kaktovik resident Marie Rexford examine ivory and bone artifacts in the Barter Island collection. Photo by Kelsey Gobroski

Members of the Kaktovik community have worked closely with archaeologists to examine the artifacts, learn from them and involve their children in an effort to support future collaborations with researchers. Matthew Rexford of the Native Village of Kaktovik said this partnership is especially important for the community’s youth. “Starting them when they are young will be really helpful in deciding what they would like to pursue in their life. So, I think looking to our past to learn from, it is key,” he said.

PHOTO ABOVE: These arrowheads, on loan to the University of Alaska Museum of the North from the Canadian Museum of History, were collected by Diamond Jenness in 1914 on Barter Island, Alaska. Photo by Kelsey Gobroski

A story in the Alaska Dispatch News tells about the items on loan to Alaska and the plans for using them in Alaska.

The artifacts are at the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks, on loan from the Canadian Museum of History, and are being examined, cataloged, photographed and otherwise recorded.

That means use of high-quality digital imaging, 3-D reproduction and other technology to replicate the artifacts, said Josh Reuther, curator of archaeology at the Museum of the North.

“Our whole intent was to make sort of a virtual collection,” he said. Compared to having the items back in Alaska for good, “it’s kind of the next-best thing,” he said.

The items, including ulus, arrowheads and harpoons, were excavated at semi-subterranean house sites. Such living quarters held a wealth of artifacts, Reuther said.

“It’s not that unusual to have that many artifacts, especially in a site like this,” he said.

The oldest artifacts are believed to date back at least 500 years, though analysis is still being done to better determine ages. The newest are believed to be from the early 20th century, or possibly just a few decades before Jenness’ arrival, Reuther said.

The Barter Island collections represent a remarkable period from before and just at the beginning of contact with Euro-American whalers and explorers, Jason Rogers of Northern Land Use Research Alaska said. “There are a wide variety of artifacts that represent changes in material culture, including antler arrowheads and ivory harpoon heads with iron points, as well as copper and slate ulus.”

PHOTO ABOVE: A comb made of bone, excavated from Barter Island in 1914 by Diamond Jenness. Part of the Canadian Museum of History collection on loan to the UA Museum of the North. UAMN photo by Kelsey Gobroski

The collection represents a way of life that extends back 1,000 years, what archaeologists refer to as Thule culture. Josh Reuther, the curator of archaeology at the UA Museum of the North, said there is much to learn from it. “That is why we wanted to bring it back, even for just a short time.”

The collection arrived in Fairbanks in October 2014 after an agreement was finalized to loan the artifacts to the museum. Since then, in-depth documentation and analysis of the artifacts has been ongoing, enhancing previous work completed by Jenness and other researchers in collaboration with North Slope community members.

“These collections made by Jenness in 1914 were some of the first real scientific archaeology ever done in Alaska,” Reuther said. “The materials would have likely been lost to erosion or destruction through development. Now more than 100 years later, the preservation and study of these collections is providing new insights into the unwritten history of this region.”

For more information, visit the museum’s press release.

2

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.

 

5

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)

4

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.