Specimen of the Week 257: Baboon skeleton
By Dean W Veall, on 16 September 2016
Dear Specimen of the Week readers, Dean Veall here. This week’s specimen is literally skin and bones (obvs) . I’ve chosen an articulated skeleton and during my research I’ve also uncovered a pelt of the same species in our collection, but do they belong to the same individual. This week’s specimen of the week is the…..
**Yellow baboon (Papio cynocephalus) skeleton**
The baboon family
This species is one of five primates in the grouping of ‘old world monkey’ known as baboons, which are found primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Baboons are thought to have diverged from other primates between 1.8 million and 2.2 million years ago
The Yellow baboon
Yellow baboons are found on the savannah and in light forest in eastern Africa, from Kenya and Tanzania in the east to Zimbabwe and Botswana in the west. Like other species of baboon they are ground dwelling and have an omnivorous diet, prefering a diet of fruit and plants but also feeding on insects. These animals live in highly organised and strictly hierachical social group of as many as 200 individuals. Primatologists studying the vocalisation of baboons have discovered that dominance relations of individuals in a troop can be determined by their vocal exchanges.
Skin and bones
Our yellow baboon skeleton is on display in the Museum but we also have, locked deep away in a sealed bag, the pelt of a yellow baboon. It’s a great (if ever so slightly creepy) specimen with it’s stuffed arms and legs. But did these two specimens come from the same individual? Well, upon investigation in our records I discovered a second pelt of a yellow baboon in our collection and even though we have just the one mounted yellow baboon skeleton we have skeletal remains of at least another three indviduals. So in total we have a collection of four yellow baboons. Tantilisingly, the second skin (not the one pictured) tells us that is the skin of one of the disarticulated skeletons off display and rather interestingly that the specimen was a gift from the UCL Institute of Neurology. So, could the Museum have been gifted the other yellow baboon specimens from the Institute of Neurology? And what can these specimens tell us about the history of science here at the University?
When I chose this specimen I had no idea that I would stumble upon the potentially controversial provenence of this object, but as I have raised it I think it’s worth addressing. The collections here at UCL are rich with objects that illustrate the history of science, such as the first clinical x-ray in the Chemistry Collections or Sir William Ramsey’s Nobel Prize for the discovery of noble gases and a dog respirator used in the 1930’s for animal research. Even though historical, objects such as the dog respirator and the baboon material represent the contentious subject of animal experimentation which is highly emotive in contemporary culture. Animal research has contributed to many of the medical advances we take for granted today such as antibiotics, anaesthetics and medicines that allow us to effectively manage serious conditions such as diabetes. UCL is open and transparent about animal research and has rigourous policies and procedures to ensure the highest standards are met in terms of animal welfare. To outline the rationale behind the approach to animal research:
“If a researcher believes that animal research is the only way to answer an important scientific question, they must first apply for internal ethical approval. No scientific procedure can be undertaken if there are non-animal alternatives available to answer the same question or if it may cause unnecessary harm to the animals.”
Our baboon material dates from at least 33 years ago and today UCL publishes facts and figures about the extent of its animal research.
And what about in the wider museum world? How can we use our historical collections to engage visitors with this thorny topic? It was a subject that was picked up recently by a masters student here at UCL, who ran a facilitated display of the 1930’s dog respirator in the Museum to better understand visitor’s responses to animal research, a theme that is under-represented in displays on the history of science. You can read her thoughts here.
I thought I would lighten the mood and end of some footage of baboons wading in water.
Dean Veall is Learning and Access Officer at the Grant Museum of Zoology.