3D model of a polar bear skull. Noeska Smit/Gerrit Rijken.
It has been a frosty few weeks here in Bergen with lots of snow and temperatures dipping well below zero. With those bone chilling temperatures it becomes clear very quickly how we humans are poorly designed for such weather. Just breathing in the cold, dry air is enough to start coughing. If only we had a polar bear’s nose!
Polars bear are very well adapted to cold weather. Not only do they have thick fur and a generous layer of subcutaneous fat to keep the chill out, their noses contains a well-hidden structure that warms up and hydrates the Arctic air that they breathe.
The video above shows a 3D model of a polar bear skull collected at Spitsbergen that was scanned by Associate Professor Noeska Smit at the Department of Medical Visualization. Thin and curly structures are visible inside the nose. These are the turbinate bones, fragile bony plates that are covered in a mucosal membrane. The turbinates warm the incoming air and add moisture to it, ensuring that the air that reaches the lungs isn’t too dry. The turbinates’ convoluted structure increases the inner surface area of the polar bear’s elongated nose and helps it withstand the Arctic chill. Pretty cool!
The walrus’s most distinctive feature is its tusks. They can grow to up to an impressive meter in length, and both males and females have tusks. Walruses were once very abundant in the Svalbard Archipelago, but were nearly hunted to extinction during the Middle Ages for their ivory. Walrus ivory was very popular during the early Middle Ages, and a famous example of objects made out of walrus ivory are the Lewis Chessmen. The growing trade in walrus products in medieval Europe led to overexploitation of walrus populations, and the population on Svalbard was brought to the brink of extinction. In 1952, walruses on Svalbard became protected. The population is slowly increasing but walruses remain on the Norwegian Red List.
The Osteological collection of the Bergen University Museum contains many archaeological walrus skulls, such as the one in the picture above, that still bear the signs of this overexploitation. According to archaeologist James Barrett, walruses were slaughtered in a consistent way where the frontal part of the skull, the rostrum, was chopped off in order to remove the tusks. The marks left behind by the chopping can still be seen in many of the skulls (indicated by the dotted line).
Smalahove is a traditional Norwegian dish made from a sheep’s head and often eaten in the period leading up to Christmas. The name of the dish comes from the combination of the Norwegian words hove (meaning head) and smale (meaning sheep). The dish is considered a delicacy in the western part of Norway, although it is certainly not everyone’s favorite. The head is salted, sometimes smoked, and dried, and is boiled or steamed for several hours before serving. It is served with boiled potatoes and kolrabi mash, and if you need some help washing it down, a little glass of akvavit.
In addition to the cultural delight some of us take in eating this dish every year, it also provides great specimens for our osteological collection. The fact that smalahove is often sold already cut in half means that it gives us a nice sagittal cross section of the sheep skull. This is helpful in understanding the internal anatomy of the sheep’s head, and helps in identifying small skull fragments from archaeological excavations. Can you spot the petrosal bone, the densest bone in the body?
When PhD student Sam Walker was looking at bird bones from medieval Norway, he noticed a chicken tarsometatarsus with the bony spur, a pointy outgrowth of bone covered by a layer of keratin that projects from the back of the bone in mostly roosters, cut off. Then he found another one. And another one. Now, more than 16 chicken tarsometatarsi from a number of cities in medieval Norway have been found, all with their bony spur partially or complete chopped of. This type of bone modification is typical of cock fighting, an ancient blood sport with a long tradition in many countries. The bony spur is removed and an artificial spur, often made of metal, is attached to the stump. The tarsometatarsi that Sam has found come from all over Norway, suggesting that cockfighting was widespread in medieval Norway. Trading networks between Western Europe and East Asia, where cockfighting has traditionally been very popular, might have introduced cockfighting to Scandinavia. But strangely enough, there is no mention of cockfighting in any historical literature from or about Norway. Why that is the case remains unclear. These peculiar bones therefore look to be the first, and only, evidence we have for cockfighting in Norway.
Walker, S.J. and Meijer, H.J.M., 2020. More than food; evidence for different breeds and cockfighting in Gallus gallus bones in from Medieval and Post-Medieval Norway. Quaternary International 543: 125-134.
Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandusplatyrhynchus) are a separate subspecies of reindeer, endemic to the Svalbard archipelago. They have relatively small heads, a compact body, and shorter legs than the reindeer found on mainland Norway (Rangifer tarandus tarandus). The latter is clearly illustrated by the photograph above: the bone on the right is a metacarpus of a Svalbard reindeer, the metacarpus on the left is from a reindeer from mainland Norway. The osteological collection of the University Museum of Bergen contains numerous skeletons of both species.
The Atlantic puffin, Fratercula artica, is probably Norway’s most iconic bird. One of the best places to spot them is on Runde Island, which is the southernmost breeding colony in Norway. Puffins have a distinctive bill that changes color throughout the year as well as the bird’s life. The colorful part of the bill is also called the rhamphotheca, and is made of keratin, similar to our hair and nails. During the skeleton preparation process, the rhamphotheca is often lost, but the bony beak underneath still reflects its typical shape.
We are glad to announce that work on our newest project, Marine Lexicon, has started. Together with CHAM (Centro de Humanidades, University of Lisbon) and NIFU (Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education). The aim of the project is to construct a thesaurus containing the names for marine mammals in ten different languages. Additionally, we will create a list of place names related to the exploitation of marine mammals. These can tell us much about the relationship between man and marine mammals. Where seals and whales just a source of food or were they hunted for other purposes, too? How did people in the past perceive them?
What happens to animals you only heard of? Mythology and fables often are based on reality… Therefore, sea monsters and other mythological sea creatures will also be included.
Click here to visit the website for the project.