FAIRBANKS — October is a time to observe the extremes of the life cycle. It is a time of decay and change. No wonder that it ends with Halloween. This ancient celebration marks a pivotal time of year when the boundary between life and death is laid bare.
To celebrate the season, hands-on programs at the University of Alaska Museum of the North this month will explore the eaters of flesh, carnivores.
Link Olson, the curator of the museum’s mammals collection, said the term “carnivore” can refer to mammals in the order Carnivora, which includes most of the animals we think of as carnivores, such as wolves and wolverines, as well as seals, sea lions and walrus. It also refers to any animal that eats flesh.
To minimize confusion, scientists use “carnivoran” to refer to the former and “carnivore” or “carnivorous” when talking about diet.
“Not all carnivorans are carnivores,” Olson said. “For example, the giant panda is in the order Carnivora but only eats bamboo. And many noncarnivorans are carnivorous. Many bats, which are in the order Chiroptera, eat fish, frogs and even other bats.”
There are 31 mammal species native to Alaska classified as carnivorans. That’s nearly one-third of Alaska’s native mammals. Of those, 17 are marine species, including sea otters, walrus, seals and sea lions. Alaska is home to both the largest (the grizzly bear) and smallest (the least weasel) terrestrial carnivorans in North America. Many of these are on display in the Gallery of Alaska.
Other carnivorous species you can find at UAMN include lynx, a bald eagle, tufted puffin and halibut. There is also a replica of an American lion skull, along with a panel explaining how Blue Babe, the museum’s exquisitely preserved specimen of an extinct steppe bison, was likely killed by this now extinct carnivoran that once lived in Interior Alaska.
Museum Educator Emily Koehler-Platten said the museum is focusing on meat-eating mammals and other carnivores this month at hands-on programs.
“There are also carnivorous birds in Alaska and carnivorous fish, including the Pacific halibut and the northern pike. Pike mostly eat fish, but are also known to eat shore birds, small ducks, muskrats, voles and shrews. There are even carnivorous plants in Alaska that prey on insects, including sundews and bladderworts.”
At the “Halloween at the Museum” event on Oct. 31, specimens of carnivorous plant specimens from the museum’s herbarium will be displayed alongside live examples from the Institute of Arctic Biology greenhouse at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Even the entomology collection has some carnivorous insects to show off at Halloween, including beetles that feed on dead mammals, fish and birds. Insect curator Derek Sikes said spiders kill and eat an estimated 300 million pounds of insects per year in Alaska — more than the weight of all the moose combined.
Museum collections can help us understand where carnivores live, what they eat and how that changes over time or location. By studying specimens collected in different seasons, scientists can investigate whether their diet changes with the seasons.
Collections can also help track whether certain species are more or less abundant over time, and how climate change can affect carnivores, particularly marine mammals such as polar bears and seals that rely on sea ice.
Although people eat meat, we are considered omnivores because we don’t live on meat alone. And of course, humans do more with animals than eat them. The material culture of Alaska’s indigenous peoples illustrates the intricate relationships of reciprocity with animals, including spiritual ties and ancestral connections.
Many cultural items on display at the museum show that relationship, such as dance fans made with snowy owl feathers, a parka made with sealskin and mittens made with wolf fur. There are Yup’ik masks depicting stories about foxes and walruses, a hat with a Tlingit killer whale clan design and an Unangax decorated bone showing a sea otter.
Carnivorous organisms are fascinating animals, and artists have been inspired by them for thousands of years. In the Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery, visitors can explore depictions of carnivores, including ivory carvings of whales, seals and owls. One painting by George Ahgupuk explores marine carnivores such as polar bears and walruses.
As the leaves fall from the trees signaling the change of the season, October is a good time to reflect on carnivores, an important and fascinating part of our world.
To Try At Home
• Search for scat. Go on a walk and look for animal dung. Using a stick, see what it is made of. Is there fur? Are there bones? Seeds? Do you think the animal was an herbivore, carnivore or omnivore?
• Make a menu. Create a menu for a carnivore’s restaurant. Read about what different “customers” eat. What would you offer a variety of Alaska carnivores?
• Design a mask. Make your own Alaska carnivore mask using art supplies. What features are important?
If You Go
• Discover carnivores at the UA Museum of the North’s hands-on programs in October. Early Explorers, for children 5 and younger, meets 10 a.m. to noon each Friday in the Creativity Lab. At Junior Curators, from 2-4 p.m. Oct. 13, kids 6 and older are invited to discover carnivores through hands-on investigations and crafts.
• From 2-4 p.m. Oct. 20, participants in Teen Studio, for ages 13-18, can explore connections between art and science by zooming in on the northern forest. Registration is required for this activity at bit.ly/uamnteenstudio.
• UAMN presents Halloween at the Museum from 4-7 p.m. Oct. 31. Visitors can see bones, bugs, bats and birds and explore the galleries. Costumes are encouraged. Admission is free with a donation of canned food for the Fairbanks Community Food Bank. For more information about the museum’s programs and events, visit www.uaf.edu/museum or call 474-7505.
Theresa Bakker is alumni relations director for the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Contact her by phone at 474-7081 or by email at email@example.com.