Skins a reservoir of DNA history|Richard_F||09/01/04 at 03:22:05|richard_f|xx|0||Skins a reservoir of DNA history

By William Mullen
Tribune staff reporter

August 25, 2004

Rustling through hangers like a hatcheck attendant working in a giant cloakroom filled with exotic fur coats, Lawrence Heaney, the Field Museum's curator of mammals, finally came upon what he had been searching for.

"Here it is," he said, stopping in a narrow aisle that ran between two long rows of animal pelts, ranging from apes, zebras and giraffes to buffalo, wild dogs, lions and tigers. He pulled out the edge of one pelt to reveal its dull gray fur.

"It's the skin of the first giant panda ever brought to this country from China. It was shot by Teddy Roosevelt's sons Teddy Jr. and Kermit," said Heaney, reading off a tag dangling from the fur that said it had been collected in early 1929.

Heaney was showing off a part of the Field that very few people ever get to see: its four refrigerated "skin" rooms, which together hold about 10,000 skins of large mammals from around the world.

Most were collected by hunters in the first half of the 20th Century and donated to the museum.

The museum showed off the pelts to the media Tuesday for a Dinos to DNA day held by 70 natural history museums in the United States that are trying to raise public awareness of the value of 200 million specimens and objects in American museum collections.

Most of the pelts were collected from the turn of the century until about the 1960s, relics of an era when the exploits of "great white hunters" were deemed heroic and noble.

"Big game hunting was viewed as a positive thing then, and people going on a grand safari then felt they were doing something useful by donating skins of the animals they shot to the museum," Heaney said.

"It's not something we'd participate in today; the museum wouldn't stand for it."

Today, the pelts often are all that is left of animals that have since disappeared from the places where the skins were collected.

For that reason, the museum now is very glad to have them, said Heaney.

"The material in here is just stunningly important and interesting stuff, irreplaceable now," he said.

The pelts can be used to establish where wild animals once lived, and DNA recovered from the skins can be used to compare genetic variations in the large wild populations of the past with the small surviving populations today.

In the last century booming human populations have swarmed across the vast wilderness of Africa, Asia and South America, raising settlements where wild animals once roamed freely, much as pioneers blanketed and destroyed vast tracts of North American wilderness in the 19th Century.

In fact, some of the most prized pelts in the Field's skin rooms are of American buffalo collected in the early 1880s, when they still roamed the Wild West by the millions but were being hunted so severely that they nearly went extinct.

"Many of our objects and specimens were collected more than 100 years ago, before anyone knew about DNA, which we now use to study how organisms are related to each other," Greg Mueller, chairman of the museum's botany department, said of the Field's 22 million plant and animal specimens.

"In fact, the value of our collections increases over time because of the new techniques for studying them that will surely be developed."

Maintaining specimens like the animal skins is a difficult and expensive proposition.

> "The biggest threat to pelts is insects," said Heaney. "That is why we so seldom let anybody but working scientists into these rooms, to minimize the chance of insects getting in here.

"We have limited means of prevention. We used to fumigate the rooms from time to time with cyanide gas, but that was a risky proposition. We keep the rooms chilled now between 45 to 48 degrees Fahrenheit."

In November, the Field hopes to begin to transfer many of its animal specimens, including the pelts, to new, more spacious and modern collection rooms as it completes its $65 million, 170,000-square-foot collection resource center under reconstructed terraces running along the museum's south and west walls.

"We're looking at new, non-toxic techniques to kill bugs by periodically filling the collection rooms with carbon dioxide, cutting off their oxygen," Heaney said.

"The whole idea is to make sure that these skins are here not just for our children's generation, but that they'll still be here for study 1,000 years from now."

Copyright (c) 2004, Chicago Tribune
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