Deep in the basement of Hulings, down a quiet hallway, behind a locked door is the skull room. Not as scary as it sounds, the space houses a sort of mini natural history museum, filled with skeletons, stuffed mounts, pickled specimens, and pelts, most of which have been in the college’s collection for many decades.
Carleton’s first specimens were destroyed by a December 1879 fire in Willis; however, an 1881 college catalog mentions new acquisitions, including stuffed birds and mammals. The collection, added to over the years through purchases and gifts from zoos and collectors, followed the college’s zoologists from Williams to Laird. It moved to Olin in 1961 and later to Hulings when the building was completed in 1995.
Faculty members use these objects for both science and art courses. “It’s an impressive collection for a college of this size,” says associate biology professor Matt Rand, adding that “some of these old specimens are irreplaceable.”
- Matt Rand: A vertebrate reproductive biologist, Rand has taught at Carleton since 1995. He uses many of the specimens for his Vertebrate Morphology course. “It’s basically comparative anatomy—with a cooler name,” says Rand. “But the students don’t just memorize anatomical terms, they learn how anatomy functions and structures evolve.” He’ll be teaching comparative reproduction in Australia winter term 2014 as part of a new off-campus studies program he’s developing with fellow biology professors Mark McKone and Dan Hernandez. Here, he demonstrates a crocodile’s jaw articulation.
- Cassandra Iroz ’14: “I’m interested in molecular biology and genetics, but I love that Carleton requires us to take classes in all areas of biology,” says Iroz (Altadena, Calif.), who took an introductory course from Rand her freshman year. “Unlike a lot of other schools, which separate biology into big stuff and little stuff, Carleton teaches us to look at both the cellular and the ecological level, which is exciting.”
- Cart of specimens: Rand and Iroz load a cart with some of the specimens students typically use in the Vertebrate Morphology lab. On top of the cart are (clockwise): a fruit bat (its hand forms the majority of its flight structure, unlike a bird’s wing, which is mostly forearm), a plastic spinosaurus (Rand uses it to demonstrate current thinking on dinosaur posture), an echidna (an egg-laying mammal from Australia), and an opossum (the only marsupial native to North America). On the shelf underneath are skulls of an alligator and a sea turtle.
- Gloves: When handling specimens, Rand and his students wear nitrile gloves to avoid transferring their skin oils to the objects—and as protection, because many old specimens were preserved with arsenic.
- Human skeleton: “That’s Seymour Bones,” says Rand. “Anyone who’s ever taken anatomy will groan at that old joke.”
- Domestic pig skeleton: An even-toed ungulate—ungulates are mammals that stand on their toenails (or hooves)—the pig puts its weight equally on an even number of functional toes.
- Horse skull: Horses are odd-toed ungulates, whose weight is borne entirely by their larger middle (third) toes, modified as hooves.
- Hooded merganser: This small duck is found in the northern United States and southern Canada. Students study feathers to distinguish birds’ different anatomies, colorations, and functions.
- Wall cabinets: These cabinets contain an array of vertebrate specimens, curated according to their taxonomy. The random selection of objects displayed on top include (from left): cat, dog, and rabbit skeletons, a Gila monster (the only venomous lizard in the United States), a disarticulated human skull, a goshawk, and a new world monkey skeleton. Other cabinets, not pictured, contain a collection of invertebrates (protozoa, mollusks, crustaceans, arachnids, and insects, among others) that biology professor emeritus Gary Wagenbach used in his courses.
- Floor cabinet: Stacked, top to bottom, are skeletons of a mink, a freshwater turtle, and a small mole (its forelimb anatomy reveals that it’s a consummate digger.
- Specimen drawers: The top drawer holds rodent skulls. The second drawer contains a collection of stuffed warbler skins. Labels on the warblers date from 1900 to 1947. Many of the later skins were prepared by nationally known ornithologist O. S. Pettingill Jr., who taught at Carleton from 1936 to 1953. A proficient taxidermist and an accomplished author and filmmaker, Pettingill believed a good collection of bird skins was instrumental for teaching purposes.
When he learned in 1962 of President Gould’s plans to retire, Pettingill (then director of Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology) wrote Gould: “Where’s his majesty, the handsome mounted Emperor going? If he’s doomed to a museum . . . how about giving him to the Laboratory of Ornithology?”
Sorry, Dr. Pettingill, Oscar’s here at Carleton—although not in the skull room.