A lot of Gilbert's finds have been dead animals from pet stores, including the squirrel monkey; others he has ordered from Internet sites, including skullsunlimited.com. The collection at the library is a mixture of real skeletons and replicas. They include skull replicas of Australopithecus, which paleontologists and archaeologists believe to be humans' 3.5-million-year-old ancestor and one of Gilbert's favorites, and a replica of foot imprints from Laetoli in Tanzania. The footprints were of an Australopithecus female and child that were in the mud and incased in lava.
Gilbert likes to take his collection to schools, where he talks about things such as homology, the similarity between systems in species. For example, the bird, human and Pterodactyl all have one forelimb bone, two lower limb bones and a “hand.” Most of the items can be passed around to the students, although some of the most fragile skeletons, like the mole, are encased in a block of clear plastic.
Standing in the hallway of the library, Gilbert points out similarities in the specimens in the two glass cases. As he talks visitors to the library wander by. A woman and her daughter peer into the cases to study the tiny bones of a bat encased in a clear block of plastic. A teenager stares at the replica of one of humans' early ancestors and another man hangs back, waiting to ask Gilbert a question.
Gilbert uses a number of techniques to turn an animal into a skeleton. Some of the larger animals have been boiled, some have been soaked in an ammonia mixture and most have had some scraping to strip the flesh from the bones. Gilbert has even used dermestes beetles to do the work for him; they eat away the dried tissues. Smaller animals are more difficult to do, he said, because they are held together by tendons and boiling will destroy them.
Bare bonesWhat: A display of Fred Gilbert's collection of animal skeletons.
When: Next couple of months.
Where: Allen County Public Library. The cases are near the east entrance, close to the information desk.