Cleaning Bones: Messy, But Somebody's Gotta Do It

The gorilla bones must be painstakingly brushed to remove soft tissue and fats. i i

Before they end up in a museum display, the gorilla bones must be painstakingly brushed to remove any lingering soft tissue and fats. Erin Marie Williams hide caption

itoggle caption Erin Marie Williams
The gorilla bones must be painstakingly brushed to remove soft tissue and fats.

Before they end up in a museum display, the gorilla bones must be painstakingly brushed to remove any lingering soft tissue and fats.

Erin Marie Williams

Legendary primatologist Dian Fossey spent decades documenting the lives of the mountain gorillas of Rwanda. Now, scientists are exhuming the bodies of those gorillas to learn about evolution. Researcher Erin Marie Williams is part of that team, and sent this seventh dispatch from the field.

Dian Fossey brought international attention to the plight of Rwanda's endangered mountain gorillas. Her own research with the gorillas was stopped short when she was murdered in 1985. Follow an illustrated timeline of her life.

Field mentality has set in. Showers have become optional, even burdensome. My feet qualify as biohazards, and the room Amandine Eriksen and I share smells like a gym locker, so I assume we do, too. Being in the field is a messy business. Granted, this field experience is a little different from most, with a cook and house guards. But the work is undeniably the same.

We've completed five excavations, with three to go. Excavating is grimy enough: hot, dirty, sticky and at times painful. And the road ahead to museum storage promises to be long and messy. You can't stick fresh bones into a museum and wash your hands of them. They have to be laboriously cleaned of dirt and lingering soft tissue to prevent decay and mold.

We started the morning by removing as much dirt and soft tissue as possible from each bone. This is no easy task; Google a gorilla skull and take a look. Count the places for grime to hide. And as dirty as I am, I have nothing on these skeletons. They've been in the ground for more than six months, subject to wild weather changes, decomposition and bugs galore. They need Clorox and a sandblaster to shine. But we use water and gentle sponging to prevent damage. And in the process the bones basically transfer their goo to us.

Erin Marie strains the cleaned gorilla bones to catch any fragments that may have come loose. i i

Particularly dirty bones need to be soaked in buckets of mild detergent. Here, Williams works on a humerus bone. Amandine Eriksen hide caption

itoggle caption Amandine Eriksen
Erin Marie strains the cleaned gorilla bones to catch any fragments that may have come loose.

Particularly dirty bones need to be soaked in buckets of mild detergent. Here, Williams works on a humerus bone.

Amandine Eriksen

When dry brushing and sponging with water is not enough, we put the bones into a Terg-A-Zyme bath to hasten soft-tissue removal and, if necessary, to leach out fats that molds feast on. We change the baths every other day to maintain enzyme activity. Right now, we have about 15 skeletons soaking. Imagine the size of the basin that holds an entire gorilla skeleton. Now imagine carrying buckets of water, day after day, to refill the basins. If you're visualizing Mickey Mouse in Fantasia with the broomsticks and the buckets, you're on the right track. After a few days, we check the bones, take off more tissue and put them back into a new bath until we're happy they're clean.

And clean they must be. Every bump, healed fracture or scar could be a mark left by an event in the gorilla's life. Those marks will become a sort of code by which scientists read other bones to learn how animals — or perhaps human ancestors — laid down a history of their lives in bone.

But back to work. I think I hear some buckets and sponges calling ...

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