Contributing to science from beyond the grave

Christmas decorations are going up now, indicating that Halloween is long past, but science never stops remembering the dead.

A headless and tail-less lizard of a sort, found right at LSRC, probably a half-eaten prey.

Back in high school, I spent an inordinate amount of time at a natural history museum, staring at all kinds of bizarre organisms, from cobras pickled in formaldehyde to the tiniest beetle pinned to the wall to bear taxidermies posed mid-roar. Eventually, I shadowed researchers and got access to the rows upon rows of specimens, each meticulously labelled and catalogued, forming the most comprehensive collection of South-East Asian natural history, stemming as far back as 1823.

Museum specimens on display, dead organisms suspended in jars of formaldehyde.

One of the greatest sources of specimens is roadkill. As Singapore developed from a tropical rainforest to a busy metropolis, natural habitats were drained to build infrastructure and roads criss-cross the island, cutting up the few remaining patches of forests. It wasn’t long before I followed a senior curator out to pick up a roadkill that was called in.

Before that, like most people, I would have probably reacted to a dead bird by the side of the road with disgust and gingerly step around it’s oozing organs. But I grew to consciously notice the dead wildlife around me in the city – which are more common than you’d imagine – and began documenting it. This grew into a Facebook album of carcass photos that my friends are less than enthusiastic about.

Recently, I spotted a 50th addition to my “dead” album, so I decided to collate a list of why even dead wildlife is important to scientific research:

  1. Species distribution

Unfortunate as it may be, sometimes, rarely-observed nocturnal animals elude camera traps and sleep-deprived researchers, only to meet their end attempting to cross a road. Regardless, the body can tell us the individual’s species, age, sex, and the areas of land it uses.

Carcass of an endangered Hawksbill sea-turtle found in Saint-Croix, US Virgin Islands.

2. Biological details

When possible, salvaging the carcass can yield more information, from using the stomach contents to derive diet, obtaining viable DNA for genetic analysis, and observing the skeleton for morphological traits.

Possum skeleton found during Costa Rica’s drought.

3. Urban-wildlife conflict

Duke’s bird collision project is a prime example that uses the carcasses of wildlife to pinpoint effects of urbanization and find solutions. Reflective windows in the path of birds are similar to roads in the path of deer, animals run straight on to their deaths. By recording which areas cause the most problems, mitigation strategies can be put in place, such as bird-deterrent patterns on windows, or wildlife crossings that offer safe passage above or below roads.

Dead hummingbird on top of the glass doors of West Union right here at Duke.

4. Specimens for storage

Anatomy and veterinary students need carcasses to study and practice on. While heartbreaking, collecting the carcasses maximises utility.

To me, there is a morbid beauty in the sight of a carcass. It’s a sort of momento mori, a sad reminder death, and that even in a concrete jungle, we live among other animals. I had expected my friends to react strongly to a image of a dead bird right by French Science, and hope that the next time they walk to class, perhaps they’d give a thought to our neighbours. What I did not expect, were the exuberant responses. Some people found it really cool, and that this was not something they’ve ever considered before, and begun sending me pictures of the carcasses they have since come by.

Smooth dogfish, disposed by a fisher at Beaufort, NC.

A side-note, do not handle wildlife with your bare hands for they may contain parasites. Also, depending on state laws, you may or may not be allowed to collect the wildlife without a permit, endangered species and birds of prey are off limits country-wide. So the next time you come across a dead animal, pause and consider how it died.

A decaying Flamingo in South Africa. Because I like birds, there is an overrepresentation of avians in my album, but I’m working to record more invertebrates.