Tales from the Bone Palace

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Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - GOODPOSTER - JULIE DER­MAN­SKY

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

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