IN AN UNEXPECTED PART of their summer research, a couple of biology students found themselves driving two coolers of frozen gazelles from Wichita, Kan., to Macalester’s histology lab.

McKenna Bernard ’14 (Mt. Vernon, Iowa) and Samantha “Sam” Zimmerman ’14 (Northampton, Mass.) had spent the summer working with biology and geology professor Kristi Curry Rogers, a vertebrate paleontologist best known for her study of dinosaur bones.

Sam Zimmerman returning a frozen river otter carcass to the lab freezerBut this particular summer Curry Rogers and her student researchers were instead studying the bones of modern animals, from a gazelle to a skink. “We’re working on modern animals for their insights into dinosaurs,” says Bernard. “By studying the bones of modern animals, we get a better idea of how accurate our theories of dinosaur growth may be.” The modern animals they studied came from a zoo, where they have good records of each animal’s age. When an animal dies at a zoo—in this case, the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita—the carcass is frozen and may be released for research to qualified laboratories.

Histology is the study of bones at the microscopic level. To be prepared for histological study, the animal carcasses were first taken to the Science Museum of Minnesota, where the flesh was removed by flesh-eating beetles. That took several weeks, depending on the animal’s size.

Back in the lab, Zimmerman and Bernard took thin slices of various bones to study, noting growth rates, periodic cessations of growth (marked by lines in the bones similar to tree rings), and the relative abundance of blood vessels, as recorded by holes in the bone.

McKenna Bernard examining a thing section of lizard boneWhen the zoo called to offer the gazelle, Zimmerman and Bernard volunteered for a quick road trip to Wichita to pick up the animal— and a few surprises. As they were packing up, the zoo veterinarian looked up from the deep freeze to ask, “Would you like a flamingo?”

October 18 2013

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