Juneau college student assembles grizzly skeleton

Posted: Wednesday, May 24, 2000

JUNEAU -- A 9-foot-2-inch grizzly bear that once roamed north of Juneau is on display at two local schools.

The hide, mounted on its hind legs in a menacing pose, is in a showcase at Juneau-Douglas High School, whose teams are the ''crimson bears.''

The grizzly's 300-piece skeleton was reassembled and is on display at the University of Alaska Southeast, part of an independent study project by science student Tony Nizich.

Nizich, 21, shot the bear near Berners Bay in May 1999. His father, taxidermist Mike Nizich, prepared the hide for display at the high school, while Tony scraped and boiled the rest of the 1,070-pound carcass down to 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 the project, Nizich had never seen an animal skeleton. After skinning the bear, he put the parts in a freezer while he researched how to clean and preserve the bones.

Most people who clean bones use flesh-eating beetles, Nizich said, but he couldn't get a colony. So he scraped as much tissue off as he could, then carefully separated, photographed and labeled the bones before repeatedly boiling 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. Nizich even pulled the teeth to clean out periodontal tissue. He drilled holes in the bone to drain oil out of the marrow.

''This bear was sure oily,'' Nizich said.

On his own, Nizich figured out how to build a structure of stainless steel rods, wire and screws to 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 pliable metal rods that go through the bones and attach them to other bones. Some are attached to each other with metal wire or screws. He used silicone to recreate cartilage.

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

Nizich estimated he spent 250 hours on the skeleton 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.

Nizich was impressed by how similar the bear skeleton is to a human's. However, the powerful forelimbs and muscle attachments indicated how much force a bear can apply.

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

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