Archived Story

Natural History Museum: wildlife up close

Published 7:50pm Monday, November 15, 2010

Andrews University's Natural History Museum houses the most complete mammoth skeleton ever found in Michigan. Photo by Terri Gordon

By TERRI GORDON

Off the Water

To see the most complete mammoth skeleton ever found in Michigan, one need go no farther than the Natural History Museum at Andrews University in Berrien Springs.

Found on the Eau Claire farm of Wesley Prillwitz in 1962, the mammoth —Mammuthus jeffersonii — was discovered in a peat bog as workers were dredging a pond. Andrews students at the time assisted in its excavation and identification, and the Prillwitz family thanked them by donating the skeleton to the biology department museum.

Tom Goodwin, professor of paleobiology, and director of the museum, says mammoths belong to the same family as modern elephants and existed in Michigan during the latter part of the ice age. The skeleton in the museum is believed to be that of a male mammoth, and to have been about about 25 years old when it died. How it died is a mystery, though it died quite a bit short of its normal 70-year life span.

Unfortunately, the mammoth skeleton has been neglected over the years and is showing some signs of deterioration. The biology department has consulted with a mammoth specialist to assess the damage and make recommendations. While the department listened to his advice, further action has been put aside for now as the cost of restoration is beyond what they can do at this time.

“We brought in a mammoth expert,” Goodwin said. “He didn’t think it was in any danger of falling down soon, although some upgrading would be helpful. To do a real restoration, the entire skeleton would need to be dismounted, cleaned and remounted on a frame which would support it long-term.”

Besides the mammoth, the museum also has a large collection of mammals and birds native to southwestern Michigan, as well as exotic animals from around the world.

According to Goodwin, the museum has the various squirrels and rodents found locally, as well as porcupines, minks, badgers and coyotes.

There is a deer fawn, a blue fox, a raccoon — “all the little things,” he said.

“For a small university museum, we have a very good collection of mammals and birds,” Goodwin said. “We also have a pretty decent collection of insects, and then we have quite a few shells.

“Probably our biggest single treasure would be a large collection of birds and mammals from South America that was made by students and faculty from here back in the 60s, and maybe into the early 70s as well,” he said. “We have lots of bats. We have primates. We have sloths. We have South American birds. So, that’s probably our single best collection.”

The museum has been the recipient of several private collections over the years in addition to their own acquisitions. This adds to the numbers of specimens — “hundreds and hundreds,” Goodwin said, and adds to the eclectic nature of the collection that also includes several specimens from Africa. The most unusual of these is a pangolin, an armadillo-like creature that is nevertheless in a family all its own.

The museum is “a repository for examples that you just can’t get at easily otherwise,” said David Steen, biology department’s chairman. “It’s a place to come and learn. Different people use it for different things. Some people come just to see the wide diversity and to marvel at the Creator. Others come to study a specific type of organism.”

Steen said children are especially impressed.

“In some cases they never knew something existed — they’ve never seen a pangolin or an armadillo. Often times they just see these things in pictures, and here they get to see that they really live and that they’re the size they are. It’s different than a zoo. Here you can get up close. It’s not going to bite you or harm you in any way.”

Goodwin says that while animals were once hunted for the collection, most additions now come from natural accidents, birds hitting windows for instance.

Indeed, Steen says it is difficult to keep up the collection because of current controls that require permits.

“Many of these (specimens) were collected back in the days when you didn’t need specialized permits,” Steen said.

Since they don’t have a full-time staff to operate the museum, it is open to the public by appointment only, but that is not meant to be prohibitive. The public is encouraged to use and enjoy the museum.

The biology department and the Natural History Museum are located in Price Hall of the Science Complex on the campus of Andrews University, Berrien Springs. To schedule a visit, call (269) 471-3243.

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