Skeletons Tell Many Stories

Jan 11, 2018

by Laura Habegger
Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology

Last semester, Dr. Laura Habegger, visiting assistant professor in the Biology department, taught a new course at FSC called Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy. In the course, students explored how scientists compare and contrast anatomical features among vertebrates. These investigations help researchers classify organisms, increase our understanding of how species have adapted to their environments, and provide evidence for evolution. Knowledge of anatomical structures has applications in forensic analysis and pathology, the study of diseases.

Many body systems can be used to study anatomy, including skeletons. At FSC, we have a small collection of animal skeletons students can examine. But, in order to get a wider and more in-depth experience, Dr. Habegger took the class on a field trip to Skeletons: The Museum of Osteology, located in Orlando.

Dr. Habegger’s class at Skeletons: The Museum of Osteology.
Dr. Habegger’s class at Skeletons: The Museum of Osteology.

The museum houses over 450 animal skeletons ranging from fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals (including human skulls and skeletons). Skeletons is open to the public, and provides educational programs for students of all ages.

“We had two tours, one showing the most interesting specimens around the facility such as elephants, orcas and giraffes,” Dr. Habegger explained. “The other was a CSI activity where the students had to determine the cause of death of a victim by analyzing the injuries and overall morphology of the skull.”

The students were fascinated by such a large collection. Carolyn Cureton, class of ’19, who is a Biology major and plans on pursuing a career as a Physician Assistant, said:

“I enjoyed visiting the skeletal museum. It really put into perspective how all the skeletons differ from one another based on where that animal lives. I would definitely go back to the museum again!”

Dr. Habegger’s class determining the cause of death of a victim by analyzing the injuries of the skull.
Dr. Habegger’s class at Skeletons: The Museum of Osteology.

As part of a class assignment, students took pictures of museum specimens and used these in class presentations.

“The idea of the assignment was to explore the major evolutionary trends in skeletal systems,” Dr. Habegger explained. “Topics included comparisons of carnivores and herbivores, different structures that form from dermal, or skin, tissues such as horns and antlers, and the evolution of shoulder structures among running, flying and swimming birds.”

Dr. Habegger’s research investigates the link among form, function, and performance to better understand how feeding works in marine top predators. So, she knows the value of examining skeletons and the information they can provide about how animals function in their environment.

Dr. Habegger will continue to utilize Skeletons in the future. “Having the museum just an hour away from campus provides a priceless opportunity,” Dr. Habegger said. “I’m looking forward to perhaps holding a lecture at the museum where students can further examine the unique material offered.”

A frog generated by clear and staining techniques prepared by Dr. Habegger’s students.
A frog generated by clear and staining techniques prepared by Dr. Habegger’s students.

The FSC collection of animal skeletons is increasing through student-generated specimens. Part of the Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy course involved students learning clear and staining techniques, a process that renders the flesh invisible, the bone red, and the cartilage blue.

Students also learn how to clean and assemble skeletons from the carcasses of dead animals. The carcasses are brought to the lab and dermestids, flesh-eating beetles, clean the bones that are then carefully assembled and mounted by the students.

“Comparative vertebrate anatomy not only provides a strong foundation for students seeking disciplines such as veterinary, medical or graduate school,” Dr. Habegger noted, “but also is a class were students will evolve and grow with the material through constant engaging techniques that captures the essence of the FSC experience.”