Specimen of the Week: Week 165
By Jack Ashby, on 8 December 2014
Over time, there has been some descent with modification. Specimen of the Week maintains its ancestral characters and still has the ability to show the world what museums have in their drawers; but it has also acquired some new adaptations where something amazing is revealed about well-known specimens. Some suspect sexual selection is at work.
This week, a new mutation has arisen. Instead of lifting the lid on stories from the stores, this Specimen of the Week will shed light on glimpses of horror in a specimen’s database records. Time will tell whether this adaptation will become fixed in the Specimen of the Week population.
This week’s Specimen of the Week is…
**The Infant Orang-Utan Skeleton**
1) Over the past few weeks we have made a lot of fanfare over the dismantling, packing up and future remounting of the largest specimen we have – the rhino skeleton. What we’ve been quieter about is that at the same time (in the same van) we packed up three other skeletons – a baby chimp, a baby orang and a gibbon. These are the first specimens to be sent off as part of our massive conservation project Bone Idols: Protecting Our Iconic skeletons. It’s critical work that will safeguard our rarest and most significant specimens for the long term future. We still need to raise the funds to complete the project so please do support the project here.
2) One skeleton that went away with the Rhino is from a baby orang-utan. We call him Yoda for reasons I hope are obvious from the picture to the right. Yoda was prioritised in the Bone Idols project as he is in some serious need of conservation – as I’ll demonstrate below – largely resulting from the way he was mounted.
One might expect that his mounting would have been better given who he belonged to…
3) The first glimpse into the database record for LDUCZ-Z2064 (as Yoda is more formally known) reveals a tantalising piece of information. It implies that is part of the Huxley Collection, meaning he possibly belonged to Thomas Henry Huxley – one of the greatest nineteenth century scientists; the man largely responsible for the acceptance of Darwin’s work by the Victorian scientific community. He worked on the early discoveries of ape specimens, so this orang could have contributed a lot to early knowledge of apes. This collection came to the Grant in 1986 when Imperial College London disbanded its zoology collection and donated it to us.
4) Delving deep into the “Conservation” section of Yoda’s records reveal some disquieting reports:
04/10/2006 – A Condition Assessment:
The specimen has numerous stains over the bones of the arms and legs which are caused by atmospheric contaminants. The whole skeleton shows signs of damage to the surface of the bones which may have been caused by original bone cleaning processes. Metal pins in the top of the left leg have come out of their sockets and the right hand has become detached from the stick accompanying this specimen. Both of which requires considerable re-articulation.
27/11/2007 – Record of Conservation Work:
He was collapsing and joints loose and detached. Pieces found detached on base stand. Rewired some of the joints. Re-glued pelvis/femur joints and added vertical copper tube support attached to spinal wire at neck [You can see this by comparing the image above and below]. Wired top vertebra to skull and cushioned head. Re-attached ribs with B72. Glued both zygomatic arches. From different specimen is unidentified piece of bone and a thumb (3 bones artculated) that belong to small adult primate.
04/03/2008 -Record of Conservation Work:
He collapsed again. The 11/2007 supporting rod became unstuck at base and both his femurs detatched from pelvis. I elongated the supporting rod using brass peg and carbon fibre rod, fixed with araldite glue. Glued pelvis to femurs. Rib and phalange become detatched so mended with B72. Put rubber washer around spinal metal rod at neck, and added rubber washer to plastozote at base of skull.
5) These repairs went a long way to protecting Yoda from the way he was mounted – essentially little pins through each joint were taking the weight of the whole crouching skeleton, with no upright support. We required some more specialist skeletal preparation and metal-work than we can do in the Museum, so that’s why we’ve sent Yoda away for a few months as part of the first phase of Bone Idols works. This is what is happening to him:
Dry cleaning followed by wet cleaning with Synperonic-A7 in deionised water; additional supports (metal rods to match the existing support) are required underneath the body and underneath the right wrist or hand to reduce the stresses elsewhere on the skeleton; remove bottle tops from the base of the plinth; re-attach various small bones that have broken off.
[Not for the first time on this blog we reveal that museum folk are a resourceful bunch – using whatever they can find to complete a job. In this case bottle tops painted black were being used as feet on the base of the mount. Sturdy and cheap, but not really befitting Huxley’s own orang-utan]
Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology