Dem Bones Gonna Walk Around…

A polar bear (Ursus maritimus) skeleton.

A polar bear (Ursus maritimus) skeleton. Image: Roger Baird © Canadian Museum of Nature

You can’t help but look over your shoulder in some of our collection “pods” as you walk through our collections and research facility in Gatineau, Quebec, especially if you are there early in the day and seemingly on your own. Sometimes it feels like you’re being watched, not by sets of eyes, but by some creatures that are, you might say, just a shadow of their former selves.

Zoos and aquariums provide expert capacity at keeping animals alive and in their natural state. Museums keep records of these animals from the parts that can be kept around for a long time, effectively stopping the natural biological processes of decomposition.

Mounted skull and skeleton of an American bison (Bison bison) male.

An American bison (Bison bison) male skeleton. Image: Roger Baird © Canadian Museum of Nature

The idea of mounting skeletons of animals probably goes back to the first cave dwellers, when someone wanted to clear out the leftovers and found the remains of a particularly good hunt. What better way to preserve the memory of that day than to recreate it, especially if you didn’t have much skill at painting on cave walls. But of course, mounting a skeleton takes a lot more time and effort than picking up a scrap of charcoal—and a lot of preparation time, too, if it is going to last.

Museums have been mounting skeletons for years because it is a lot more realistic to make the bones last a long time than to keep a whole specimen (especially a large one). For really ancient animals such as dinosaurs, it is mostly the fossilized bone that has been preserved for us to study, along with some imprints of their flesh and their footprints.

Why preserve bones? What do skeletons tell us about an animal? In point of fact, a whole lot!

Skeletons in the Gallery of Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy, Paris, France.

Skeletons in the Gallery of Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy, in Paris, France. Image: Roger Baird © Canadian Museum of Nature

That inner structure provides all sorts of critical information about how an animal is adapted to live the lifestyle it does.

  • The sheer size of the paws of a polar bear (Ursus maritimus), for example, adapts them beautifully for effective swimming, and their claws help the bear hold onto a seal meal.
  • The row of vertical processes that forms a ridge above the spine of bison (Bison bison) provides very effective attachment points for the sturdy muscles that help them migrate across the plains.
  • A giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) that wants to eat one more acacia leaf can do so only if its neck vertebrae are that little bit longer than the giraffe beside him.
Moose (Alces americanus), American bison (Bison bison) and muskox (Ovibos moschatus) skeletons in our collection facility.

Moose (Alces americanus), American bison (Bison bison) and muskox (Ovibos moschatus) skeletons in our collection facility. Image: Roger Baird © Canadian Museum of Nature

Skeletal sets are a critical reference for conducting comparative anatomy between different vertebrate species. “It’s in the bones,” you might say.

And the differences in these bones can be just as important if you are trying to tell the difference between two closely related species. Kamal Khidas, our Chief Collections Manager of Vertebrate Zoology, has been able to document that by taking a lot of measurements from many skulls of the bobcat (Lynx rufus) and the Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis). For many people, seeing the two together it would be like meeting twins for the first time, but when you know the characteristics of each one, it becomes easier.

Further Reading

Vertebrate Collections at the Canadian Museum of Nature
http://nature.ca/en/research-collections/our-collections/vertebrate-collections

Natural History Museum, London, England
http://www.nhm.ac.uk

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