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Hometown U: Bone collection gives researchers a boost

Kathleen McCoy

Just about a year ago, headlines in Alaska and across the country reported the fate of a baby beluga, a young male just two to three days old, found alone near Naknek in Bristol Bay. Observers surmised that a storm had separated the 110-pound baby from its mother.

With permission from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward rescued the beluga. Because its immune system was so undeveloped, its survival odds were low. Sadly, it died of multiple infections just a few weeks later.

Only, that's not the end of the story.

Monty Rogers, an Anchorage archaeologist specializing in the study of stone tools, read the news accounts and contacted the center. Could the whale's bones be saved for educational purposes?

Again, with necessary federal permissions, Rogers arranged to transport the carcass to Anchorage and begin the long process of cleaning the bones to preserve them. The beluga carcass right now is submerged in a covered tub of horse manure so enzymes can clean the bones.

Eventually the beluga's new home will be a collection of faunal bones, an animal skeleton library, if you will, housed at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The collection doesn't belong to the university. It doesn't even belong to its stewards, the Alaska Consortium of Zooarchaeologists (ACZ), a nonprofit made up of federal and state agency scientists, professors, students and professional archaeologists who volunteer the time and energy to manage the collection. It's been around for 17 years; if the consortium is ever dissolved, all the bones will go back to the person or agency that donated them.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contributes many specimens but bones also come from trappers and citizens or, as in the case of the beluga, wild animals that die or are killed.

Volunteer means volunteer. Rogers, current president of the ACZ, is hosting the vat of horse manure in his own backyard. (If you find horse manure off-putting, know that the Smithsonian Institution uses elephant manure for the same purpose. It's what's done.)

Diane Hanson, a professor of anthropology at UAA, isn't the only consortium member with a couple of freezers in her backyard filled with specimens waiting to be processed for the collection. College students who have used the bones in their studies often end up volunteering to do some of the work.

The consortium makes the collection available to any researcher working in Alaska or other northern regions. About a dozen recent master's degrees and a doctorate were possible because of the collection. Without it, students and scientists would have to travel to comparative collections Outside, or send their artifacts away and arrange for someone else to do the analysis.

So how do these old bones help?

Hanson, one of the collection's primary custodians, gave me a quick tour of its current site, part of an ordinary downtown office building. Different species have their own cubicle-sized rooms filled with stacks of shallow drawers -- this room for birds, that one for fish, small mammals here, large mammals there. And no, they don't have dinosaurs.

We were staring into a drawer filled with small plastic boxes, the kind used for leftovers. From one, she pulled three white, lacy fish jaws. "So this one's halibut, this is a cod, and this is a rockfish," all very different.

A scientist or student might hold up the bone she's trying to identify next to these, puzzle over it, think maybe it looks more like a sculpin, dig back into the drawer for the box of sculpins and start over.

It's like putting together an intricate puzzle, Hanson said, or asking a million little questions. It can be as meditative and soothing as intricate craftwork to the artist. But ultimately, the process is exhausting. Hanson recommends sessions of no more than four hours, after which accuracy plummets.

What a researcher achieves from this labor can bring to life one thin moment, now lost in time, but still rich with information.

Say an excavation turns up a handful of artifacts, among them bones -- maybe broken, maybe half-digested. With accurate classifying, Hanson said, "You can get not only the type of animal, but the age, the season of the year the animal died, maybe a fish hook size, or whether nets were used. You may even be able to tell if the fish was caught near shore or way off shore. You get a whole lot more information than, 'Oh, they ate cod.' "

For an anthropologist, this is pay dirt.

"We are all about the people," Hanson said. "We apply all this biological information about animals toward one question: What were the humans doing?"

Because bones age and break, the collecting never stops.

Maybe you saw the headline last week about that big orange rockfish caught near Sitka, the one that might be 200 years old?

Hanson is on it; she's already called to try to get the bones.

Kathleen McCoy is an electronic media specialist at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.


Kathleen McCoy
Hometown U