I nearly ran into our MuseumMobile Educator while rushing down the hallway the other morning. Jane occasionally stops by to inquire about the use of an additional animal skull or to rearrange any of the number of specimens found in our kits for environmental education programming. On this day, she casually carried a black bear skull encased in bubble wrap, and before we even spoke I knew that I would soon be putting on my conservator hat. And just like any other day at the Museum, I should have know that a brief encounter would lead us both on a quest for more knowledge. This time, we were interested in teeth.
To say that MuseumMobile specimens are handled a lot would be quite an understatement. Imagine hundreds of elementary school children determined to get their hands on a real black bear skull, to feel the pelt of a bobcat, or to see the life stages of a goldenrod gall fly under the glass of a riker mount. These children might not always have the chance to experience these parts of nature elsewhere, and it's a great pleasure to be able to provide such an opportunity for them. Still, I'll admit that I cringed when Jane let me know that our black bear skull required some dental work as a result of handling. Thankfully, she was able to save the teeth that had escaped from their sockets and I knew that it should be a quick fix.
|Above, the incisors of this black bear have come loose|
and the canines exhibit cracking. Below, a molar is loose in its socket.
Loose teeth are quite common in prepared skulls--many species of animals from which we collect skulls have a tooth socket that is much larger than the tooth itself. Often too, teeth become loose as a result of common preparation methods such as water maceration--submerging the uncleaned specimen in water for a prolonged period of time to allow for tissue to break down and then be easily removed.
What are our options when damage has already been done? The fix is actually quite simple and cost-effective. A clear adhesive glue can be applied to both loose and cracked teeth. I spent five minutes at most filling the socket of the lost bear tooth with epoxy and cotton filler. I also applied a thin line of the adhesive to the meeting points of all other teeth and jaw, then allowed it all to dry to a nearly-invisible state.
|The skull of a white-tailed deer, above, and American|
bison, below. Notice that both lack upper incisors at
the front of the upper jaw.
Before she left, I made a point to share with Jane the results of past dental work I had completed on our American bison skull. One of its large teeth had broken in half, but I challenge any casual observer to be able to determine which one. Being an inquisitive person, Jane quickly noticed that much like the white-tailed deer that she teaches school children about, this bison also lacked top incisors. What do deer and bison have in common besides the lack of these front teeth? I'll save the answer for another time, but its questions like this that keep me on my toes and ready to investigate the natural world one specimen at a time.