Learning bear anatomy the hard way

Student pieces together skeleton for project

Posted: Tuesday, May 23, 2000

The brown bear that rears up at Juneau-Douglas High School also prowls at the University of Alaska Southeast.

Tony Nizich, a science student at UAS who shot the bear near Berners Bay last May, cleaned and put together the 300-piece skeleton as an independent study project.

The skeleton, in an all-fours walking position, is now on display at the university's Egan Library. Nizich's father, Mike, prepared the hide of the same bear for display at JDHS in the customary standing and menacing pose.

The 1,070-pound bear, 9-foot-2 from nose to tail, ended up as a 115-pound skeleton.

``That's one of the most fascinating things,'' Tony Nizich said. ``Here you have a structure so delicate that supports 1,000 pounds.''

Before this project, Nizich had never seen a skeleton of an animal, let alone a bear. ``I've never seen the skeletons of a dinosaur at a museum,'' he said.

After skinning the bear, he put the parts in a freezer while he researched how to clean and preserve the bones. That was half the battle.

Most people who clean bones use flesh-eating beetles, Nizich said, but he couldn't get a colony. So he ended up scraping as much tissue off the bones as he could, then carefully separated, photographed and labeled the bones, and then repeatedly boiled them with solutions to fully clean them.

``He was very meticulous in cataloging everything off the animal before he started boiling,'' Mike Nizich said.

Each rib and vertebra had to be separated and cleaned. Tony Nizich even pulled the teeth to clean out the periodontal tissue.

He also drilled holes in the bone to drain the oil out of the marrow. ``This bear was sure oily,'' Nizich said.

On his own, Nizich figured out how to build the structure of stainless steel rods, wire and screws that holds the bones together.

``That was a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants trial and error,'' Nizich said.

Nizich studied photographs and watched videos he had taken of bears to see how their bodies moved when they walked. That helped him position the pliable metal rods that go through the bones and attach them to other bones. Some bones are attached to each other with metal wire or screws. He used silicone to recreate cartilage.

He first connected the back bones, laid them out flat and attached the ribs. Then he built a metal structure to support the rib cage. All of this was then suspended the correct height over the display case's platform so other bones could be attached and braced with metal rods to each other and the platform.

Nizich also recreated with epoxy the right lower jaw bone, which had been broken by the exiting bullet.

``I can tell you just from experience it is quite an achievement,'' said Joe Cook, a biology professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and curator of mammals at the university museum.

``It's a great way to teach anatomy,'' he added.

Tony Nizich figures he spent 250 hours of hands-on work over eight months, not counting research time. For his eight college credits, he also wrote a paper comparing the brown bear skeleton to a primitive four-legged animal.

The project has given him a new appreciation for bears.

On the one had, he was struck by how similar the bear skeleton is to a human's. On the other hand, he noted the powerful fore limbs and saw the muscle attachments and how much force the bear can apply.

``Everything has a specific function. You can't really do without it,'' he said.



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