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Animal Skulls Tell Stories at Academy of Sciences

The skulls of more than 400 sea lions are on display in a new exhibit  at the California Academy of Sciences.
The skulls of more than 400 sea lions are on display in a new exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences.
Dave Boitano/photo

To most of us, a lifeless bleached skull is a symbol of death.

But to scientists at the California Academy of Sciences, it can be a record of an animal’s life revealing clues about how the creature lived, what it ate, and how it died.

Visitors will get a glimpse into the world of skulls and their secrets in “Skulls” a new exhibit opening Friday, May 16 at the academy and running through Nov. 30.

“We think it’s going to be wildly popular, said Academy Director Greg Farrington,

“Our mission is to explore, explain and sustain life and none of that could be done without what is in our skulls. “

If you have ever wondered what a bone room looks like, you will get your chance when you enter the exhibit on the second floor Forum Theater and Gallery.

A wave of sea lion skulls, more than 431 in all, occupies one wall of the exhibit. That may seem like a lot, but it’s only one sixth of the academy’s total sea lion skull collection which researchers use to study the marine mammal.

While the sea lion remains make look alike, they are arranged to show the differences between the various sea lion species and within each group.

They have been collected over the years from beaches extending from the Sonoma to Santa Cruz county lines.

“As scientists we need large numbers of specimens to be accurate in what we do, “said Moe Flannery, collections manager of Ornithology and Mammalogy.

“Each sea lion on this wall is a data point of where this animal was found.”

The other 300 specimens, ranging in size from a massive bull elephant to a red piranha, are arranged to show certain characteristics including teeth and jaw types and the differences in a single species like dogs.

By examining the remains, researchers can determine how the animals lived died and evolved.

Most of the skulls on display are from the collection of Ray “Bones” Bandar, a retired high school biology teacher who has collected more than 7,000 specimens over the past 60 years mostly from road kill and beach strandings.

To prepare the remains for examination or display, researchers call on Mother Nature to strip the flesh from the skeleton.

Hundreds of larval Demestid beetles are kept in tanks in the academy’s bone lab.

When conditions, including a dark and warm environment, are right, the insects swarm over the skull, devouring the flesh in as little as three days, said Sue Pemberton, curatorial assistant specimen preparator in the department of Anthropology and Mammalogy.

“They are invaluable to us,” she said. “They do a lot of hard work and make some really beautiful specimens.”

Colonies of live beetles are part of the display along with a time lapse video of the bugs making short work of an animal skull. It’s a bit gross but fascinating at the same time.

To demonstrate the bone collection’s value, Curator of Ornithology and Mammalogy Jack Dumbacher shared the results of some recent research projects.

By measuring the size of beaks on sparrow skulls, one scientist determined that birds in colder climates have smaller beaks to retain heat while those in warm climates have developed large beaks to vent excess heat.

By comparing skulls already in the collection, researchers have discovered a new species of mammal, Dumbacher said and the discovery will be unveiled sometime in June.

Far from being a pile of specimens gathering dust, the academy’s collection will continue to serve the scientific community for years to come, Dumbacher said.

“It’s not a stagnating collection at all, it’s a growing collection that’s used by researchers from around the world, “he said.

“We want to ask all kinds of questions for the future because nobody knows what kind of questions people are going to be asking 100 years from now or how they might be able to use these specimens.”

Human evolution is depicted in a display of skulls curated by Anthropologist Zeresenay Alemseged. The collection contains the skull of Selem, an ancestor of humans who died at the age of 3 more than three million years ago.

Alemseged discovered the remains in Ethiopia 14 years ago and this display marks the first time the skull has been shown outside of that country, he said.

By examining the skull’s teeth, scientists can pinpoint the exact age of the specimen, he said.

“We cannot say that she died at 3 three million years ago, but that she died at three years, six months, and five days,” he said.

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