Published: October 28, 2015

Specimens That Will Haunt Your Dreams

Kate Golembiewski, PR and Science Communications Manager, Public Relations

Alert

The Field Museum is home to about 30 million objects—including a handful of super creepy ones. Here are some of our favorites that walk the line between scientifically valuable and downright horrifying.

1. Freezers full of dead animals

The walk-in freezer of dead animals in our basement is one of the more serial killer-esque things you’ll find behind the scenes at the Field, but we promise it’s for a good cause. We always brag about having 30 million objects in our ever-growing collections that we use in our research, but huge numbers like that mean that things get back-logged. When animals come in faster than we can prepare them for study, we put them on ice until we can get to them—like this deer head in a bag.

2. Pickled bats

If you find your way into The Field Museum’s Wet Collections you might come across this Hammer-headed Bat wedged inside of a jar. This fanged creature of the night isn’t being locked in a glass prison though; it’s being carefully preserved so that scientists from around the world can study it. This bat’s huge nose allows it to make a honking mating call—and that schnozz is part of the reason why this bat is in a jar today. We store our bats in alcohol so that their facial features stay well-preserved and useful to scientists—drying out their skins makes those features harder to see.

3. Jars of bat skulls

Sometimes, though, an animal’s skin isn’t enough for scientists to study—you need to get down to the bones of the matter. To determine the dimensions of different bats’ skulls, we’ve been opening up our bat jars, peeling back the skin like a hood, and popping the skulls out to use in our research. It might sound gruesome, but it’s important for us to learn more about bats—they represent 20% of all mammals, and they provide the US an estimated $3-5 billion per year in pest control by eating bugs that hurt crops.

4. Flesh-eating beetle room

The name says it all. This is where our dermestid beetle colony eats the flesh off of the bones that we want to study. The room smells like rotting meat (big surprise), and you can even hear the bugs chewing away (it sounds a little like Rice Crispies). But we get some important information out of the skeletons that come out of the bug room. For instance, the last 35 years have seen some birds’ beaks shrinking— which is in line with predictions of decreased body size as climates get warmer. 

5. Fetal bears

These are not two cute little mice going for a swim, but instead a pair of fetal bears submerged in a jar of alcohol. While this jar may be a difficult talking point with the kids, if you’re a developmental biologist, these bears might be just what you’re looking for. Just as studying the origin of species requires us to look at relationships between different animals, studying the origin of the body's form means looking at embryos’ growth and development. We keep these specimens and others like them in our collections for researchers here and all around the world to study. 

6. Giant cockroaches

In general, opening up a drawer and finding cockroaches is not a great thing, but here at the Field, it’s no big deal. We have hundreds of roaches in our collections, including these ginormous ones from Central America. But even though they’re not great roommates, cockroaches are pretty fascinating scientifically—they’re social animals that work together to make decisions, and they communicate with each other by using chemical cues. Having a bunch of them on hand helps our researchers find out more cool stuff about them.

7. Komodo dragons

Locked away deep underground in a steel-lined tub are two six-foot-long Komodo dragons. The Komodo dragons aren’t stuck perpetually swimming laps—they are, like much of our collections, long dead and submerged in alcohol. We don’t keep them in such a heavy, tightly sealed container because we’re worried about Komodo dragon zombies though, but instead to ensure they remain well-preserved. Preservation of our specimens takes constant attention to ensure alcohol levels are regulated and contaminates are kept out. 

8. Preserved organs

Not only does this jar labeled “Cougar Heart” supply us with a killer band name, but it also gives us valuable information about the animals we study. Preserved hearts, eyes, and brains let us learn more about how bodies work and how animals function. Plus, we’re not planning on going mad scientist anytime soon and creating any Franken-animals, but if we do, we’ll know where to start.

 

All photos © The Field Museum. 1, 3, 5, 7, 8: Kate Golembiewski. 2, 4: Greg Mercer. 6: Robin DeLaPena.