It’s often messy, smelly and a little bit gross, but the work of a vertebrates collections manager is vital for science.
Belinda Bauer is responsible for maintaining the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s collections of animal specimens, both on display and in storage.
Belinda Bauer started in archaeology before moving into zoology and TMAG’s vertebrates collections. (ABC Radio Hobart: Carol Rääbus)
She also has the job of preparing specimens in the wet lab at TMAG’s collections facility in Rosny.
“A lot of skinning goes on down here,” she said.
“Just yesterday I washed out a few skeleton macerations, so that’s the smell, it’s the smell of the bones drying.”
To prepare an animal specimen as a disarticulated skeleton, Ms Bauer uses the water maceration method.
Skeletons are kept disarticulated for research while display skeletons are usually put together. (ABC Radio Hobart: Carol Rääbus)
Basically, she skins the animal, takes off as much flesh as she can and then puts the remains in a bucket of water.
It is left there until the remaining flesh has rotted off the bones.
The bones are then washed with a diluted ammonia solution and dried.
On the day the ABC visited, Ms Bauer was taking feather samples from penguins for a study by the Lund University in Sweden.
She was also preparing the bodies to be skeleton specimens.
“I’ll pluck part of them and send some feathers off and take some detailed photographs of the skin patches for those researchers,” she said.
“I’ll prepare both specimens as skeletons, disarticulated loose skeletons, that will be available for researchers and will become part of our reference collection.”
Displays showing what Tassie devils will eat (or try to) for an upcoming exhibition. (ABC Radio Hobart: Carol Rääbus)
Before macerating the specimen, Ms Bauer takes a lot of detailed measurements and other notes and the information is kept in a database.
“Without that information it can be of little use for research,” she said.
“It’s more than just skinning and stuffing; it’s more about maintaining a collection that represents Tasmanian biodiversity and making sure that is accessible for researchers around the world.”
Ms Bauer also works with the curators at TMAG creating public displays of animal specimens, working out the best way to display them in a way that best tells their stories.
A researcher has been going through TMAG’s jaw and teeth collections recently. (ABC Radio Hobart: Carol Rääbus)
“We’re not here to make beautiful things, I’m not a taxidermist,” she said.
“By preserving physical evidence of Tasmanian biodiversity, it means that researchers can access it now, and if we do a good job of our preparation, they will be able to do so for the next 150, 200 years.”
And it is not just animal bodies that need to be prepared for display and recording.
Ms Bauer also prepared a number of specimens of Tasmanian devil poo for an upcoming exhibition to show what wild devils eat.
“You could have a photograph or an observation of an animal and that’s useful, but having a specimen means that it’s verifiable,” she said.