Tales from the Bone Palace
RAYMOND Bandar is a retired teacher and a naturalist, someone who studies animals or plants.
The 84-year-old is a member of the California Academy of Sciences. He has created what he calls a “bone palace”, a collection of close to 7 000 animal skulls and skeletons at his home in San Francisco.
I visited him and his wife, Alkmene, an artist, and spent days videotaping and photographing him and his collection. He collected many of the skulls and skeletons himself on trips to everywhere from Alaska to Australia. The bulk of his collection is from the shores of Northern California. Other specimens were donated to him by museums, veterinarians, or people who just know he is into such stuff.
The California Academy of Sciences often asks him to collect specimens and record measure- ments when they get a report of a dead sea mammal. I accompanied Bandar on one trip to find and collect the carcass of a sea otter. That day we found three carcasses, the otter and two California sea lions.
These collected specimens make great visual displays in natural history museums. But they also offer a wealth of information that scientists can use to learn more about the animals. Many researchers, and dentists, have studied the specimens in Bandar’s collection. Teeth tell a lot about an animal’s age, health and even the cause of death.
Scientists also study bones to work out how changes in the environment are affecting animals.
Bandar is often asked why he collects bones. He says they’re masterpieces. “Pelvises and vertebrae have fascinating imagery. The skull serves as a blueprint and, like a book, can be read to understand the lifestyle of different animals. They make great teaching tools for biology and art classes.”
Bandar’s bone palace has the spirit of earlier centuries’ cabinets of curiosities. These collections, made possible by the age of exploration and inspired by the desire to understand science by classifying and identifying, became the building blocks of prominent museums throughout the world.
Bandar’s home is like an art installation. He maintains a rock garden with plants in the yard. Alkmene lets him use most of their house for his collections of art, rocks, shells, and bones that don’t fit in his palace. Her own studio is one of the few areas not filled with his discoveries. She draws a line at the kitchen, too, and has banned Bandar from storing unfinished specimens in the freezer. (He has his own freezer in a separate room.)
The bone palace has no bells and whistles like modern natural history museums, just the specimens themselves in all their intrinsic wonder. Every bone and skull seems to be in a perfect place. DID YOU KNOW ? Just as rings in a tree’s trunk can tell the story of a tree’s life and the environmental conditions it faced, so can plugs of earwax chronicle the life of a whale.
Researchers Sascha Usenko and Stephen Trumble of Baylor University explained how these robust, waxy plugs can provide a record of a blue whale’s health and bring to light such factors as pesticide exposure, stress and age.
Whales’ blubber, the animals fat, has been used to study pesticide exposure, but fat can indicate only whether the animal was exposed to pollutants. The earwax allows the researchers to find out when that exposure occurred.
“What we’re able to do is essentially go back in time,” the researchers said. “When we cut the ear plug in half, we can actually see the light and dark layers in there… The further we go towards the centre, the further back in time we go.”
A major challenge for researchers is getting the plugs, which is apparently harder than heading out to sea with a giant cotton swab. According to Usenko and Trumble, they get them from dead whales only, such as those that wash up on beaches. – Washington Post