Conservation – The Wolverine \\\ ///

My first taste of natural history conservation was when I started work on a wolverine skeleton, which had already been partially cleaned. The skeleton used to be articulated on a stand for display, but now the forelegs have been taken off  for easier storage in a cardboard box.


The Set Up

 Gulo Gulo (Linnaeus,1758),  are mustelids, like badgers  and weasels, they live in the Boreal forests of  North America and Northern Europe, they are incredibly powerful, looking somewhat like little bears.  They are opportunistic feeders, and can take down a large deer if the deer is hampered by deep snow, they will scavenge the kills of other animals  and the females hunt small mammals when they are rearing their kits. If they kill more than they can eat they will cache it and come back later. They mark these caches with the typically mustelid scent glands.

After some digging in filing cabinets and  reading though old reports I found that; ‘as opportunities not unfrequently occur of obtaining objects of interest and value, by purchase  only, the curators have thus secured several highly important specimens’ this was from 1865 and the Wolverine (Glutton)  was one of these specimens.

all the specimens are fine

Emma the conservator at Leeds showed me how to set up the steam cleaner, which gets right into the bone and drives out the deeply engrained dirt, this is currently considered the best method to clean bones.

purple gloves!

Once a good head of steam had built up in the machine, I  donned the kit; lab coat, goggles, ear defenders and, of course gloves. All my senses impaired I sat down and started on a fore limb, it is definitely satisfying to see the dirt blasted off the bone, although I was probably breathing in wolverine dirt.



so clean


Cleaning the feet of the wolverine was quite a fiddly task, but revealed that there was a lot of tendons, and even a toe pad still left on the foot. This is interesting for biologists, but a conservators nightmare as it will attract pests.

hope i look this good at 150

149 yo claw

Working up the foreleg again, I noticed that the scapula has some irregular bone material that suggests that the wolverine had been injured or had an infection and the wound had healed.

ew cancelleous

what happened?

After lunch and a refill of the water chamber I was ready to tackle the ribs and skull. I did the skull first, noting that  the sutures on the nasal bones were visible which also points to it being a younger animal, as in mustelids all the sutures on the skull fuse and are not visible in adult specimens.

aww baby wolverino

note sutures

Once I finished the ribs, which were very fiddly, yet didn’t seem to get much cleaner, I laid the whole skeleton out to dry on top of the freezer.  (this freezer is empty, but the conservator won’t let me fill it with specimens)


If you want to see high res versions of the pictures, let me know in the comments.




Osteomancy I – Pop goes the Weasel

Yesterday I found a skull labelled ‘weasel’ it didn’t look like the other weasel skulls; the cranium was the wrong shape, and the cranial sutures were visible, which is only the case for very young mustelids.
I first looked for any other data on the label, so I could narrow down my options. But no data! ( you will see this is a recurring problem)

twirly string!

mystery skull on the left, Mustela nivalis on the right.

The sharp teeth are suggestive of a carnivore or an insectivore. Instead of canines forming fangs the incisors perform this function. I also noticed the lack of auditory bullae, which have either fallen off at some point, or were never there.

hey look, an accession number -->

mystery skull on the left, Mustela nivalis on the right

My first thought was perhaps a fruit bat, but checking my Handbook of Living Mammals [Timothy E Lawlor, 1979] fruit bats may have large canines but their cheek teeth are simple compared to the dental set in the cranium I am investigating.

this book is great

Figure 35. Skull of a pteropodid (Epomophorus, x 1 1/2)

My second stop in the book was the insectivore section, where I found that the canine-like incisors, lack of auditory bullae and quadritubercular teeth are all diagnostic of the Erinaceidae family ie hedgehogs and gymnures. Checking against the diagram in the book the skull looked very much like the typical Erinaceidae skull figured.

a mystery no more

mystery skull resting on Figure 24. Skull of a[sic] erinaceid (Erinaceus, x 1)

Comparing the skull to other species of hedgehog using Animal Diversity Web it is possible it is a desert hedgehog or a four toed hedgehog, but it is mostly likely a European Hedgehog Erinaceus europeaus local animals are slightly more likely to turn up in the collection and we do have 12 stuffed hedgehogs.

Der Igel, l'Hérrison

A live European Hedgehog, © Michael Gäbler / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

If you are interested in seeing larger versions of the photographs, leave me a message in the comments.

Cave Fauna Documentation

One of the school workshops run by Leeds Discovery Centre uses specimens of Pleistocene animals found in Kent’s Cavern in Torquay.

My job was to locate which boxes these specimens came from, then to document them thoroughly on the database, so that they can be kept together ready for the Education officer.

Although the specimens had been added to the database and given a unique accession number there were very little


series of hyaena teeth from Kent’s Cavern

data on the database, and no photos.

So my first task was to hone my SLR camera skills and take photographs of the specimens to add to the database.

Using the old data cards I transferred the information onto the digital database, this was an excellent way to learn how TMS (The Museum System) works.

As TMS is not designed for natural history collections I had to learn which datafields to enter key information such as the scientific name and geographical locations.

Some of the specimens we wanted to use were one of a set, such as these hyaena teeth, and did not have their own unique accession number; so I learnt how to create daughter records, to keep the data all linked together.

One of the specimens was a cave bear jaw with a loose tooth , so it has been taken to the conservator to be stabilised, and I choose another bear tooth to replace it.

bear jaw with loose tooth

bear jaw with loose tooth

Once the records were as complete as possible I moved the specimens from plastic trays, to their own designated box, this move was then recorded on TMS.

Now these specimens are thoroughly documented, the school children of Leeds can learn about prehistoric megafauna from real specimens collected in the UK.