Smithsonian lab learns about animals through their bones


These bones, which once belonged to sea turtle, have been cleaned and studied and will soon move to a museum collection. (Ann Cameron Siegal/For The Washington Post)
January 24, 2014

It’s not gross, it’s science!

Of course it’s sad when an animal dies, but many dead birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians find a new purpose in the Smithsonian Institution’s osteology-prep lab in Suitland.

Osteology (pronounced “os-tee-OL-o-gy”) is the study of bones, their connections, injuries and diseases. Whether it’s a hummingbird, loggerhead turtle or dolphin, the organs, tissues and bones of these animals with spinal columns (vertebrates) hold clues about how they lived and died. The osteo-prep lab prepares the critical information needed for scientific analysis — knowledge that can help living animals around the world.

What happens in the lab?

Many of the lab’s specimens are sent by zoos or collected on beaches and in the wild by animal rescue organizations or museum staff. They are chosen depending upon the museum’s needs.

Each is thoroughly studied before the clean skeleton goes on display or into the Smithsonian’s research collection.

Museum specialist John Ososky says it’s critical to get as much information as you can because you don’t know what will be important later. Where was the specimen found? Who found it? What condition was it in? Are there signs of disease? Were chemicals used in treating it in the lab?

It’s a many-step process. Let’s explore more.

The Cold Room: This is like a huge walk-in freezer, where specimens are kept at low temperatures to prevent rotting while they await processing. When we checked earlier this month, the Cold Room’s contents included a Florida panther and a pygmy killer whale.

The Examination Room: This is where a necropsy is done. (Pronounced “NEH-crop-see,” a necropsy is the examination of an animal after death.) Measurements, tissue samples and photos are taken.

The Bug Room: Researchers have thousands of tiny assistants in this toasty, 85-degree room. Flesh-eating bugs (dermestid beetles) finish the bone-cleaning process by eating any tissue remaining after the necropsy. These bugs do less damage than chemical treatments would, especially on the tiny, delicate skeletons of birds.

Don’t worry, though, dermestid beetles don’t hurt people. These bugs feast on dead things. You say “yuck!” but they probably consider it “yummy!”

There is a strong smell of decay in that room, though. Imagine leaving your garbage out in summer’s heat for several days, then taking a sniff. Now, that’s yucky!

What are researchers learning in the lab?

“We’re living in a rapidly changing world,” says Ososky, the museum specialist. “The information we’re collecting now can inform and guide future decisions made in that world.”

For example, intern Joe Villari says the effects of an animal’s captivity are obvious in its bones and teeth. Animals in zoos tend to have more tooth problems because they don’t chomp down on as much skin and bones as wild animals do. Such findings help guide the way we raise or save endangered species, Villari says.

Changes in group behavior may signify that something has gone wrong in the population of a particular species. Toxins, disease and food scarcity all can affect a group’s behavior.

Last summer, a large number of dolphins were found stranded and dying along the East Coast. It’s not unusual to find an occasional dead dolphin, but suddenly there were dozens a day.

Intern Steve Thornton helped collect specimens so researchers could solve the mystery. They discovered wounds on the mouths and discolored fluid in the joints of many of the dolphins. The deaths appeared to have been caused by a virus.

Much of the lab’s work is geared to helping science years from now. For example, researchers collect animal tissue samples. As new technology develops, scientists will learn more about how species have changed over time. The samples will help them compare today’s specimens with similar ones from long ago. It’s another example of how vertebrates that are no longer living can continue to teach us.

Did you know . . .

Which bones make up a turtle’s shell?

Answer: The ribs.

Most mammals have flexible rib cages, John Ososky said. In humans, the muscles attached to the rib cage pull on the lungs and help us breathe. It’s not clear how that process works in turtles. It’s also not clear how turtles developed a rib cage on the outside of their bodies. “That’s one of the reasons we are so interested in fresh turtles,” Ososky said.

Learn more

The osteo-prep lab is not open to the public, but you can watch a video about how the dermestid beetles work at youtu.be/7PhsWtHrE0Q. Always ask a parent before going online.

— Ann Cameron Siegal

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