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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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Student artist found inspiration in her museum job

Angela Linn remembers the moment Kirsten Olson first saw the story knife collection at the @alaskamuseum.

“It was just like this light went on,” said Linn, the museum’s ethnology and history collection manager. “She was like, ‘What are those things? Wow!”

That’s not an unusual reaction to the decorated utensils used by Yup'ik girls to draw in dirt or snow, Linn said — “they’re so beautiful and they’re so unique, everybody can re­late to them in some way.” Linn remembers the moment, though, because Olson didn’t stop at “Wow!”

Olson, then a graduate student in art, started to explore the Yupik decorative styles in her own work with ceramics. Eventually, the exploration culminated in a memorable, insightful thesis project featuring an elegant sit-down dinner served on Olson’s decorated ceramic dishes in the museum lobby.

Linn attended the dinner and, months later, still marvels at the event.

“It was such an intimate thing and the food was great and conversation awesome, but the pottery was just incredible,” Linn recalled. “It was so beautiful. We were just like ‘I can’t believe she made this with her hands.’”

Olson began stewing over her ideas in the museum basement after securing a summer job with Linn in 2012.

“That was just amazing,” Olson said of working with Linn. “She was really the one who kept feeding the anthropology side of my work.”

Originally from Pennyslvania, Olson had earned an undergraduate degree in anthropology and a minor in art from Juniata College in Huntingdon. While there, she studied the Inuit culture and art from Cape Dorset on Baffin Island in northern Canada. Seeking out a graduate school, she said, “I decided ‘Why not Alaska?’”

In fall 2011, she began a master’s program in anthropology at UAF, but she found herself a little homesick.

“Fairbanks is so very different from Pennsylvania, and I needed something that was like home, and the ceramics studio became that for me,” she said. She eventually switched her master’s program from anthropology to art.

However, when she began working at the museum the next summer, those interests began to overlap again. [More…]

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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)
Made with Flickr
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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.

 

DIGGING DINOSAUR BONES –  When Katherine Anderson stepped off a small plane outside the village of Ruby in the summer of 2013, she didn’t know what to expect. She was there to meet an earth sciences expedition from the University of Alaska Museum of the North. A week prior, the crew had launched a flotilla of inflatable rafts on a hunt for dinosaur tracks along the Yukon River.

PHOTO ABOVE: Collection Manager Katherine Anderson holds a dinosaur footprint discovered along the Yukon River in the summer of 2013 on an expedition by the UA Museum of the North earth sciences department. Photo by Meg O’Connor

Although experienced in scientific field work, this was the first time Anderson had ventured off the road system in Alaska. What she and the others would discover was unique to the entire field of paleontology.  “I didn’t have a solid idea of what we were going to find but I certainly wasn’t expecting the amount of success we had. The sheer number of fossil tracks blew me away.”

The team discovered thousands of dinosaur footprints from a wide variety of species. It was the kind of discovery you would have expected a hundred years ago, evidence of an entire ecosystem of animals. There were ankylosaur footprints from the tanks of the dinosaur world, along with the first sauropod footprints found in the state. These were the long-necked giants that moved in herds.

Retired museum staff member Steve Bouta found this fossil on a scouting trip along the Yukon River in the summer of 2012. The following year, UAF students Katherine Anderson and Meghan Shay relocated the theropod footprint much farther down the river. It is now on display in the “Expedition Alaska: Dinosaur” exhibit at the UA Museum of the North. Photo by Kevin May

Anderson was particularly proud of relocating a track from a large meat-eating dinosaur, possibly a tyrannosaur. The fossil was discovered on an earlier scouting mission. She and her colleague Meghan Shay searched along a stretch of beach, comparing more than a dozen boulders to a picture.
Finally, they scouted a rock half buried in sediment. When they turned it over they discovered the fossil they were looking for, a footprint so distinct it could have been cast a few weeks ago instead of many millions of years. “We were very lucky to relocate such an amazing fossil. It even preserves a claw mark on one of the toes.”

That fossil is now on display in the museum’s special exhibit “Expedition Alaska: Dinosaurs.” Visitors can see some of the tracks found along the Yukon River in the exhibit. And during the month of November, the museum is offering a series of hands-on programs exploring dinosaurs.

Educator Gabrielle Vance said kids will learn about recent discoveries, from pterosaur tracks in Denali National Park to marine reptile finds in Southeast Alaska, even a new species of duck-billed dinosaur that once lived on the North Slope.

“It’s amazing to me that when Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis was roaming around Arctic Alaska, that part of the state was even farther north than it is today,” she said. “It may have been warmer, but the seasonal darkness would have been even more extreme.”

Imagine traveling back in time 69 million years. This polar forest environment would have been teeming with dinosaurs and tiny mammals.
Telling the story of Alaska’s Age of Dinosaurs is more complex than ever, thanks to discoveries made in just the past few decades. There are even lots of options for picking a favorite.

“Troödon is my favorite North Slope resident of ancient Alaska,” Vance said. “This fast, solitary and sneaky carnivore walked on two legs and ate hadrosaur eggs and babies. Poor Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis!”

Called the “Coyote of the Cretaceous,” Troödon had a large brain relative to its body size and may have been as intelligent as modern birds.

The museum’s collections include fossil bones, teeth, tracks and even feces, or coprolites. These fossils help us understand what Alaska dinosaurs looked like, what they ate, where they went and how they moved.

For Anderson, her current position as the museum’s earth sciences collection manager is a dream come true. After pursuing an undergraduate degree in biology, she wanted to learn more about bones, including how they grow and what they look like under a microscope. “The only lab I could work on research about bones was a paleontology lab.”

That’s how she got hooked!

Now she studies the microstructure of bones to learn about the biology of extinct animals. Her research answers questions like “how did they grow?”

“I do this by studying very thin cross sections of bone using a microscope,” Anderson said. “I am interested in any animal that would have encountered immense physiological challenges and would have had biological strategies to deal with those challenges. This definitely includes Arctic dinosaurs.”

Anderson is also interested in marine reptiles that lived in the ocean at the same time dinosaurs lived on land. These animals lacked several key characteristics that make a true dinosaur, including special openings in the skull, an upright stance and hips and legs built for running.

A thalattosaur fossil discovered near Kake in Southeast Alaska was excavated and shipped to the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Photo by Pat Druckenmiller

Anderson said her favorite fossil in the exhibit is the thalattosaur, a rare find discovered in 2011 near the village of Kake in Southeast Alaska. It is one of the most complete thalattosaur skeletons in the world.

Visitors to the special exhibit “Expedition Alaska: Dinosaurs” can also connect with ancient Alaska through art. They can pore over Ray Troll’s map of Alaska fossils, try their hand at drawing a dinosaur and immerse themselves in the world of Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis via James Havens’ mural located in the lobby. Don’t forget to look for a mammal in the painting.

At the special dinosaur edition of this month’s family day, visitors can see specimens that aren’t usually on display and perhaps catch a glimpse of the museum’s elusive life-sized dinosaur puppet, Snaps.

In the meantime, Anderson recommends that kids do something that will help them pursue a career in paleontology or any science:  be curious and never stop asking questions.

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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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.

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.

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.

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.

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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

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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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.