LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
In a little room at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, there's a scientific collection like no other, a room full of animal eyeballs. Want to see an eyeball from a duck-billed platypus - and who doesn't? Let's face it - or a two-toed sloth? This lab has it all. And, as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, these eyeballs give us a look into the anatomy of the eye.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Opening the mail can be pretty fun at the Comparative Ocular Pathology Laboratory of Wisconsin.
DICK DUBIELZIG: It's just like Christmas, yeah.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Dick Dubielzig founded this lab back in the 1980s. He says they get about 20 deliveries a day.
DUBIELZIG: So about two thirds of what we get are globes. That means the whole eyeball.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The day I visited, he and his colleagues had just opened up a box that contained globes from okapi. That's a relative of the giraffe, which has zebra stripes on its legs. Dubielzig says, this is a real prize because it's a species they didn't already have.
DUBIELZIG: Which is unusual - we pretty much have any kind of animal you can think of, any kind of a mammal you can think of.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: They've got more than 56,000 specimens. Most are from dogs, cats and horses - sent in by vets who want help in diagnosing eye disease.
DUBIELZIG: We think we're the largest collection of animal eyeballs. Maybe we should go to the Guinness people and see...
DUBIELZIG: ...If they have an answer to that.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The collection includes about 6,000 eyes from exotic animals, such as those newly arrived okapi eyeballs from the Bronx Zoo. Pathologist Gillian Shaw puts on gloves and picks one up. It's a wet, gray hunk of ragged flesh about the size of a golf ball.
GILLIAN SHAW: I think this animal had sudden blindness or something.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sudden blindness, yeah.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She uses a razor blade to slice the top off the eyeball so she can peer down at the vitreous jelly in the lens.
SHAW: I don't...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Probably some (inaudible)
SHAW: ...See anything grossly wrong or obviously wrong, though I admit this is the first okapi I have seen myself.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says they'll run tests, take photos and embed the eye in paraffin wax to preserve it. Preserved samples fill blue boxes that are stacked up against the walls. It's all carefully organized. So if you're a scientist who wants to study the architecture of the eye or eye disease or anything eye-related, this is the place for you. Leandro Teixeira pulls out a small black case filled with teeny tiny eyes.
LEANDRO TEIXEIRA: Here's the list of - so a nautilus, dragonfly, jumping spider, a cockeyed squid.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Then he pulls out some plastic bags filled with fluid and the big gray eyes of elephant seals.
TEIXEIRA: So these are very large eyes.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And the collection even has a very special human eye. Dick Dubielzig says one of the reasons he got interested in eyes is that one of his eyes had very poor vision since childhood. Eventually, his eye had to be surgically removed, and he added it to the rest.
DUBIELZIG: What I say is that you're not really an eye pathologist unless you have your own eye in your eye collection.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Now, there are other animal eyeball collections out there. But ophthalmologist Ivan Schwab of the University of California, Davis says this one eclipses them all.
IVAN SCHWAB: This is a resource that's unlike anything else in the world. It's a one of a kind.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He wrote a book about the evolution of eyes, and he used this lab a lot.
SCHWAB: It's the Taj Mahal of ocular specimens.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Still, it doesn't have everything. What eye would Dick Dubielzig love to get?
DUBIELZIG: I usually answer that question by saying the giant squid, which is the biggest eye of any animal.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Its eye is the size of a dinner plate. He also needs eyes from the spiny anteater and some of the bigger whales. So if you've got any, you know where to send them. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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