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At the Virginia Museum of Natural History: Skeletons to be displayed
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Nancy Moncrief, the Virginia Museum of Natural History’s mammalogy curator and acting research and collections director, shows part of the new “Stories from Skeletons: Hard Evidence” exhibit. (Bulletin photo by Mickey Powell)

Friday, July 19, 2013

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Make no bones about it: Virginia Museum of Natural History visitors will learn a lot about skeletons from a new exhibit that will open Saturday.

“Stories from Skeletons: Hard Evidence” shows how skeletons help scientists understand how extinct creatures lived, as well as better understand the lives of animals on Earth today. It also highlights differences between skeletons of different animals, from birds to amphibians to marine life.

“We all use skeletons everyday” in studying natural history, Nancy Moncrief, curator of mammalogy and acting director of research and collections, said of herself and other scientists at the museum.

“A lot of the evidence we use” to prove connections between animals is obtained through examining skeletons, Moncrief said.

Not only do skeletons support the body, but they also protect vital organs such as the heart and brain and interact with muscles to move body parts.

Humans and many animals have skeletons inside their bodies. Others, such as crustaceans, turtles and insects, have outer skeletons.

Most skeletons are comprised of bone and shell. Yet some, such as those of sponges, are made up of flexible collagen fibers, the exhibit points out.

Parts of skeletons such as teeth, jaws and beaks help scientists learn about what animals eat. For instance, the exhibit mentions, hawks’ sharp, pointed beaks help them eat other animals. The flat beaks of geese help them eat plants while the thick beaks of cardinals help them eat seeds.

Although teeth are the hardest part of skeletons, over time their shapes can change tremendously because of grinding involved in eating and chewing, the exhibit shows.

Broken bones help show the effects of injuries and diseases on animals and that, in turn, also can reveal details of how they lived, the exhibit mentions.

The exhibit also details how humans, especially long ago, made tools and household items from skeleton materials. For example, needles were made from bone fragments and shells were used for bowls and scoops.

Jessica Davenport, the museum’s exhibits manager, developed the exhibit and did the photography used in it, according to museum officials.

The vast majority of items in the exhibit are from the museum’s collections and many items, while they have been used for research, never have been on display before, Moncrief said.

More than 22 million animal and plant specimens are kept at the museum.

The skeleton exhibit lets museum scientists share with the public “some of the neat stuff we see every day” while doing research, Moncrief added.

Ryan Barber, the museum’s deputy director, said the exhibit ties into history and cultural lessons of the state Standards of Learning (SOLs) so it is “a very good addition” to the museum that should attract school groups.

The variety of items on display and the information provided about them should interest youth and adults alike, he indicated.

Barber said a firm closing date for the exhibit has not yet been determined, but he expects it will run through at least next summer.

The exhibit, sponsored by River Community Bank, is in the Harvest Foundation Hall of Ancient Life at the museum on Starling Avenue in Martinsville. Regular museum admission prices will apply.


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