Bell Museum is home to thousands of animal specimens

Emily Ayshford

A polar bear towers above drawers of bats as a peacock perches on a cabinet that holds bird remains from 1879.

This is the Bell Museum of Natural History’s scientific collection of stuffed animals in the Ecology Building. Home to nearly 50,000 bird specimens and 19,000 mammal specimens, the room is a little-known medley of nature on the St. Paul campus.

The museum has accumulated the specimens, primarily used for research, since its founding in the 1870s.

Although most animals in the collection were trapped for research, Sharon Jansa, curator of the mammal collection, said she welcomes donations.

Jansa said she receives animals from strange places – she accepts a lot of mounted animal heads from hunters’ wives, even though they are less scientifically useful.

“The wife is sick of the head in the den,” she said. She said she also gets dead moles killed by pets and even dead pets.

She said she will take most mammals, as long as their bodies are still in good condition and the donor has the location and time of death.

The museum usually only keeps the stuffed skin and the skull of the animal because those provide the most information.

But animals that are stuffed into a pose, such as the bears, are popular among the public. Jansa said people occasionally call asking to rent animals for parties.

But specimens are only loaned to museums and for research. Most of the specimens are kept in light- and bug-proof cabinets and are fragile, she said.

Professors often use broken or unusable specimens to teach in class. Jansa said she does not want them to go to waste.

“Theoretically, I will never get rid of a specimen,” Jansa said.

While most of the animals come from the upper Midwest, the collection also has its share of exotic and rare or extinct animals, such as passenger pigeons and megabats.

Bird collection curator Bob Zink encourages people to donate dead birds they find.

He said one person donated a dead bird found on a St. Paul road, which turned out to be a Townshend Solitaire – a rare bird in Minnesota.

The number of animals that the collection harbors allows researchers to study physical variations in species from different times and locations.