Boning up on science

Ninilchik students swim through school project

Posted: Sunday, January 07, 2001

No one really knows how the body of the little harbor porpoise came to rest on the beach just north of Ninilchik. But its appearance last August caught students and professionals in its wake -- giving them new experiences; teaching them new lessons.

"My daughters and I were taking a break in fishing," said Dan Leman, whose commercial fish sites are seven miles north of Ninilchik River. "We were coming back (home) and I noticed a fin and a tail sticking out of the sand and gravel."

Stopping to investigate, Leman discovered shore birds had also found the porpoise. There were no marks indicating it had become entangled in a net. Leman said damage to the body suggested it might have been attacked.

Just the day before, biologists from the National Marine Fisheries Service had visited Leman's sites.

"They were going out with us to see what we were getting in the nets, looking at what seals and sea otters were doing," the lifelong Ninilchik resident said. "So it was kind of ironic that the day after their visit, we had this porpoise wash up on the beach."

Especially considering that this was the first time Leman or his daughters had seen a harbor porpoise.

"At first I thought it was a small killer whale," he said. "That's what it looked like to me."

From the animal's black, gray and white coloring, it is easy to see how Leman could have mistaken it for a killer, or orca whale, although the harbor porpoise lacks an orca's towering dorsal fin.

"After I saw it, I was leery to mess with it because I knew the biologists were interested in tracking everything," he said. "At the same time, I knew that our biology teacher at the (Ninilchik) high school was doing research in that area, and so he was the first person I called.

"I let him make the calls to make sure it was OK for me to move (the porpoise) off the beach. He took it from there. After going through the proper channels, he came down, got the porpoise and put it in his freezer."

Leman found out later that the teacher, Chris Hanson, had been looking for a porpoise for his students to work on.

"He had a lot of calls out in case anyone found one," Leman said. "It was kind of neat to get one right here in the back yard and be able to give it to him."

Hanson, who is halfway through his second year teaching science to Ninilchik's high school students, said he had been looking for hands-on projects for his class. Wanting to make the most of the find, he made one more call before taking the porpoise to school.

"Chris called me and said he had a porpoise," said Ken Johnson, owner of Fantasies in Fiberglass, in Kenai. "I said I couldn't touch a porpoise because of federal laws. I didn't have the permits to do it. But he said he had those."

Hanson explained to Johnson that he was going to have his students strip the carcass down and then assemble (articulate) the skeleton. But Hanson also wanted to show them what the porpoise looked like before its death.

Johnson made a fiberglass cast of the porpoise in a jumping position that will eventually hang from the school's ceiling next to the skeleton.

"I've never done one of these," said the former Los Angeles taxidermist. "I've done a lot of white sharks, but never a porpoise."

He estimated the animal weighed 65 pounds and was approximately four feet long. He also discovered that the porpoise differed from his regular Alaska business -- salmon and halibut -- in several ways.

"It had very small eyes and, unlike a fish, it had eyelids," Johnson said.

The taxidermist will complete his part of the project by using sprayed-on acrylic lacquer to add the orca-like coloring.

The hardest part fell to Hanson's 20 students, who found themselves with not one, but two carcasses, the porpoise and a road-killed porcupine. With the 90-minute class starting at 10 a.m., the effects sometimes carried over into lunch.

"It wasn't a pretty sight," Hanson said. "But they are real troopers."

Jigsaw puzzles with interlocking pieces are one thing. But where do you begin on projects of this size and detail?

For answers, Hanson turned to Lee Post of Homer.

"I've had a lifelong fascination with bones and have been working on skeletons for the last 20 years," Post said of his unusual hobby.

His first experience was with a rabbit skeleton in a high school anatomy class. Prior to that, this native Alaskan spent four years of his childhood on the East Coast.

"There were whale skeletons everywhere that were done about the turn of the century," he said.

He also traveled up and down the West Coast, researching whale skeletons and looking for experts.

"But it turned out there was really nobody that could say, 'This is how you do it,'" Post said of piecing the huge skeletons together.

In 1994, when he was given the opportunity to articulate a sperm whale skeleton at the Pratt Museum in Homer, Hanson became the expert he had once sought. Museum director Betsy Pitzman received a letter from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute saying the institute was looking for museums doing collaborative projects with schools.

Pitzman applied for a grant from the Institute and the sperm whale project was born, thanks to a whale found beached in the Kachemak Bay area.

The project stretched over several years, involved more than 150 students and included two semester-long classes. The students also were given lots of hands-on experience.

"We had the kids do all the science," Post said. "Each kid that wanted to be involved had a bone and learned everything there was to learn about the bone. They photographed them, measured them, weighed them. And when the time came, they put their bones on the whale."

Over the years, Post claims he's articulated 20-some skeletons, including everything from the sperm whale to a bat. He has been contacted by other museums around the country and been involved in several school projects throughout Alaska.

"I'll still go off and assemble a whale skeleton for somewhere but would rather work with a teacher and a class and have them put one together," he said.

Post has carefully documented his work. With five manuals to his credit, it was only logical that Hanson would turn to him for advice and copies of Post's book, "Articulations of a Porpoise Skeleton, a Step By Step Guide," written in 1997.

"We couldn't have done this without Post," Hanson said.

The porpoise and porcupine were cut into sections, providing Hanson's students with a portion to be responsible for from the beginning of the assignment until the last bone was put into place.

Yukonna Norman, 16, was assigned a porcupine leg and foot.

"We had to boil it in water," she said of the process to remove the bones from the meat. "It smelled interesting."

Norman, who has watched her mother prepare moose skulls for mounting, put her own ingenuity to work when she discovered she was missing portions of the knee and foot bones. She made clay molds of the opposite leg and recreated the missing pieces.

"She came up with the idea all on her own," Hanson said, praising his student. "It was really cool."

Norman said the project taught her the need to be precise, checking and double-checking her work.

Jamey Russell, 17, and Peaches Taylor, 14, were given the porcupine's head, part of the vertebrae and the porpoise's lower jaw. Although keeping track of the tiny jawbones was a challenge, there was another hurdle that was even bigger.

"After a while it really smelled bad," Taylor said. "We had to work on it outside."

Although they defined parts of the project as "really nasty," both said they would do it again.

"I learned to be totally patient," Russell said of the tedious, time-consuming work.

"If you misplace something, it messes the whole thing up," Taylor added.

They agreed that seeing the two projects completed made it all worthwhile.

Molly Bosick, 17, and her friend Katie Schollenberg, 16, worked on the porcupine's left front leg and the porpoise's upper jaw.

Accounting for all the porcupine's wrist bones was a struggle and cleaning the cartilage from the porpoise bones was a tough job.

Similar to Russell and Taylor's description, Schollenberg said some of the work was "kind of disgusting" and the porcupine was particularly "gross."

Schollenberg said she did a lot of reading to help her through the assignment.

"Every animal is different," she said, summing up her experience with one word, "Fun."

Katie Moerlein, 14, who worked on one of the porcupine's front legs, also said she'd read a lot of books to add depth to the experience.

Each student involved in the project proudly pointed to the sections he or she had articulated.

"I did all the (porpoise) ribs myself," said John Smith, 18, while using a hot glue gun to attach ribs to the sternum.

Not willing to give up any well-deserved credit, Jessica Russo, 17, took offense.

"No," she said. "I put on half, gave you advice and did the back bone."

Keeping out of the disagreement, Deidre Wiley, 17, quietly covered the piece of metal rod connecting the vertebrae with silicone. The result was the simulated appearance of cartilage.

When asked if the strong smell of the silicone was bothersome, all three shook their heads, quick to say it couldn't compare with how the porcupine had smelled.

"I would wash and wash my hands, and the smell would still be there," Russo said.

A.J. Berger, 14, and Michael Angelo Scalzo II, 18, were charged with the porpoise's flippers and each also had portions of the porcupine. The tiny network of bones offered some surprises, including bones they found that were fused together.

Bridgett Cuff, 17, and Courtney Hansen, 18, had the tail sections of both animals.

With their portions done, they both said it wasn't as hard as they thought it would be.

"It all fit together," Hansen said.

Looking back, Cuff remembered one thing the project made difficult.

"Lunch wasn't that appetizing," she said.

Hanson said it isn't only the interest level of students that has been raised by the project. Local agencies also are eager to help with the science being studied in his classroom, contributing bear and moose skulls to the class's collection.

"The kids were excited when they heard what we were going to do, but reality set in when they looked at the bag of flesh and bones," Hanson said. However, his students didn't let him down. "They surpassed my expectations."

The students weren't the only ones who benefited from the project.

"I learned as much or more," Hanson said. "There's some pretty good science teachers on the Kenai Peninsula. I'm just trying to get up to speed so we can compete with the other schools. We'll do better next time."

Next time?

Hanson is looking for an opportunity to work with a sea otter. And since the wolverine is the school mascot, it's only fitting that he has his eye open for one of those, too.

He admitted that his wife was glad to have the porpoise finally removed from the family's freezer.

"There's still a couple of sharks in there," he said. "She'll be glad to see them go, too."

For now, the class can claim the completed porcupine project, resurrected from the pavement, reassembled into new life.

And then there's the delicate skeleton of the little harbor porpoise, which will be suspended in a place of honor in Ninilchik School, seemingly swimming in tandem next to the fiberglass replica of its former self.

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