Thursday, July 3, 2008

The beginning....

As part of the rehousing project in the perissodactyl collection at the AMNH, four intrepid interns will spend the summer in the AMNH’s world class fossil horse collection—the sort of thing that makes inventory interesting. The first week of the internship passed as four days of precisely planned training, early stages of our tasks, and our reward for traveling to an institution like the AMNH--tours of the other departments around us.

Some of the training was simple demonstration: cutting an ethafoam template to line and protect a drawer of specimens. Some of it reminded us more of our college lectures as we gave our attention to the volumes of information in Chris Norris’ thorough power point presentations.

With our training behind us, we have begun on the biggest of our summer tasks: carefully removing and replacing the specimens of each drawer of equidae specimens in order to line the bare or cotton-lined drawers with protective Ethafoam. Unlike the cotton lining that was previously found in some of the drawers, the Ethafoam will not outgas as it decays, possibly effecting and damaging the specimens chemically.

Between shuttling quickly between training sessions and work periods (and the staff cafeteria with its unexpectedly luxurious selection of cakes), curators and experts in other departments were kind enough to show us around their domains. Ivy took us to her fossil fish, where we saw the remains of a mysterious shark relative Helicoprion known only by its ostentatious tooth whorl.

At the Vertebrate Zoology prep lab, Neil showed us the mildly gruesome flipside to any museum's neatly mounted recent skeletons: the maceration tanks and the flesh-eating beetle room. Both are methods to remove the flesh from the bones of a carcass. Of the two, the beetles are probably the pleasanter. They eat only dead, dry flesh, and smell no worse than a musty pet shop or the elephant house at the zoo. You can flip open the lid and observe their methodical work without much discomfort. As for the maceration tanks, tanks in which the fleshy bones are put in water and left to rot for a long period of time—Neil mentioned casually that forgetting to change out the water in which the meat has been a rotting feast for weeks for huge numbers of bacteria before leaving for the weekend is a mistake you’ll regret. The regret might have something to do with the fact that the air outtake for the maceration room is disastrously close to the air intake for the planetarium next door.

Other sights seen on the various tours include the bizarre curling shells of the heteromorphy ammonites, the giraffe skins in Mammology’s collection, and the false brontosaurus skull that had been mounted onto what is now Apatosaurus.

And tomorrow… a bit of a rest. Happy Fourth of July.

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