A Slight Wolf Skull Emergency in Yellowstone
By Chris Rurik
B.A. English, minor in Geological and Environmental Science, 2011
The other day, we had a slight emergency in the Yellowstone National Park museum collections. While doing an inventory of the prized wolf skull collection, my fellow intern and I noticed some web-like material in the crevices of a few of the skulls. A small infestation, possibly spiders – bad news in a facility that exists so that the collection’s hundreds of thousands of objects won’t be exposed to damage from humidity, light, or insects.
As quitting time (on the last day of the week, no less) came and went, we frantically sealed almost a hundred skulls and boxes of “post-cranial material” into airtight bags and wheeled the whole collection into a walk-in freezer. The freeze-thaw-freeze-vacuum procedure for eliminating the infestation is ongoing.
They call the building where I work the Heritage and Research Center, and after decades of stashing collections in basements prone to dripping sewage overflows, I can tell that the staff still loves working here, even after nearly a decade of operation. The building’s architecture reflects the warehouses in the gateway community of Gardiner, but inside three floors offer the best possible working and storage conditions for a research library, archives, museum collections, geology and biology labs, herbarium, and archaeology lab. Here, our first park’s extensive cultural and natural history are collected, preserved, and made available to the public.
My days at work are diverse. I have helped to install several displays, am a wizard at cataloguing old postcards, prepare three-dimensional objects for housing, and conduct inventories of the collection. Soon I will start to plan my own display case, and I’m thinking I’ll focus on the history of mapping in the park, from charts created by the Hayden Expedition in 1872 to the recently completed bathymetric map of the strange bottom of Yellowstone Lake.
If you happen to be coming through the Yellowstone area this summer, let me know. The research library is open Tuesday through Friday, and public tours – on which you can see our collection of Thomas Moran watercolors among other objects of interest – are conducted Tuesday and Thursday mornings. I’d love to show you around.
Working this job, I’m surprised again and again how important the park’s past is to the sights, wildlife, buildings, and objects a typical tourist sees while driving the Grand Loop Road. For example, wolf biologists here do spend a lot of their time in the field, monitoring the dynamics of living packs, but they can also come to our collection of skulls (nearly all of which are individuals descended from the 1995 reintroduction) to learn about changing physiology, causes of death, and disease. It’s our job to make sure those skulls are preserved for future generations of biologists, so on Monday, we’ll start the tedious process of vacuuming.
Read more at the Out West Blog for Summer Interns »