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Pedicure for a cave bear

Posted on 03-09-2018 by Becky Desjardins

Behind the scenes at Naturalis we are busy getting all the exhibit specimens ready to go into the new museum.  Many of these animals, plants, and other objects were on exhibit in our old building, and need some care: over the years they got dusty, damaged, or otherwise look a bit shabby.  We want them to be in perfect condition for when the new building opens! So, we have been hard at work cleaning, replacing lost hair, repairing broken bones and all kinds of tasks. Which leads me to the most recent: cleaning and repairing a cave bear skeleton which had damaged paws. We are basically giving it a pedicure!

Our cave bear’s feet were broken during the removal of the skeleton from the base it was on. Many toes and claws were broken off, as was the entire right forepaw! So there was some work to do. Because the skeleton came with a plastic bag full of broken toe bits, my coworker Dick and I first had to figure out which toe broke off from which foot. Once we figured out where each toe was supposed to go, we glued them back on. We could see from the bottom of the toes that we were not the first to repair this fossil: there was lots of old glue and plaster already there!


We decided to use two different adhesives on the pedicure. For breaks that seemed clean with no missing material in the broken area, we used B-72. This type of glue is very commonly used in fossil work. It is a two part glue which comes in beads which we dissolve in acetone. When you use the compound, the acetone evaporates leaving just the glue, which is quite strong. In the case of breaks where there was also a gap of material we used apoxy, which is a filler and a glue. It dries into a grey color which can easily be painted. Besides needing a pedicure, our bear was very dusty.  We cleaned the dust off with a vacuum and a brush. A small paint brush is helpful to get into all the little cracks and crannies between the bones.

This cave bear fossil was found in Sloup, Moravia, which is in the Czech Republic.  Cave bears were large bears that resembled modern day brown bears, and they became extinct 24,000 years ago.  Fossils of cave bears, true to their name, have been found mostly in caves around Europe and into Northern Iran and Russia. Curiously, no fossils have ever been found in Scandinavia, Scotland or the Baltic Countries. Researcher speculate this is because these areas were covered by glaciers at the time. Cave bears used caves for sleeping and also for long winter hibernations. Though they had no predators when in peak health, at the end of hibernation weak individuals were sometiomeon by cave hyenas or lions.  They probably also competed with Neanderthals for spaces in caves as human population increased, and cave bear remains have also been found which indicate that bones were used in religious ceremonies as well.

Now the cave bear is done, feet intact and bones nice and clean. Though our collection storage area is no cave, our fossil will go back under protective plastic sheeting and “hibernate” until the opening of the new museum in 2019.

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