Ever wanted to see the inside of a Chinese bat? How about an Asian viper or squirrel monkey?
Thanks to Fred Gilbert, who collects skeletons as a hobby, they can be seen for the next couple of months at the Allen County Public Library. Gilbert, who has a degree in zoology and recently retired from the state welfare department, has been collecting skeletons for 30 years. After turning a mole carcass into a skeleton at age 14, Gilbert was hooked. Since then, his skeletons have become more exotic, with a Burmese python being one of his largest efforts. The snake skeleton resides over the mantle in Gilbert's home. He got the snake from a pet store after it died. His collection includes 30 vertebrates and 25 skulls representing 50 species.
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.