The Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL is carrying out a project to restore a number of skeletons of prehistoric extinct animals. Project, called “Bone Idols: Protecting our Iconic Skeletons” involves restoration of 39 of largest and most significant skeletons of the museum. The most important exhibit requiring restoration was a quagga specimen, which is one of only seven quagga skeletons to survive globally. And now it is standing on four legs again.
This quagga specimen is one of the world’s rarest skeleton and now, using cutting edge technology it has regained its missing hind limb. Quagga is a South African extinct zebra. However, it is not a prehistoric animal, which went extinct for natural reasons – the last living quagga died in 1883 and they have been hunted to extinction by farmers and skin-collectors. This particular specimen in the Grant Museum of Zoology is the only one on display in the United Kingdom and had been missing its limb since World War Two. Helping this quagga to stand on four legs again was not an easy task, which is the reason why it was done only now – modern technologies were needed.
The team of highly skilled scientists a CT machine to scan the quagga’s one remaining right hind leg. Then they created a precise mirror-image of the resulting data, perfectly replicating the missing left leg on the screen. The next stage was actually making the missing leg. Scientists used a 3D printer to print missing bones in solid nylon. The last stage was to complete the puzzle – scientists articulated the printed bones to make the historic skeleton complete once again. Quagga, extinct back in 19th century, was rebuilt using technology from 21st century.
Jack Ashby, manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL, said that “because of its age the quagga was in a pretty poor state, particularly for such an irreplaceable object. Through our Bone Idols project, we have worked with specialist bone conservators to restore the skeleton to ensure its long-term survival in the Museum. It will now be enjoyed by visitors, students and researchers for decades to come”. He also jokes that new leg will make the quagga more stable – try standing on three legs for a century. However, significance of this specimen was not recognized throughout the history of having it in the museum.
Its significance was only confirmed in 1972. Only then scientists closely studied two “zebra” skeletons. It turned out that neither of them were actually zebras as we know them. This one was confirmed to be a quagga, which is a species of a zebra, while the second one was recognized to be a simple donkey. Documents from newly uncovered archives suggest the quagga arrived in 1911 – thirty years after the species became extinct.
However, how the skeleton lost its leg remains a mystery – scientists found numerous documents about how previous curators of the museum were trying to track down the missing leg across the country. Since none of these attempts proved to be successful, modern science had to bring the leg back from unknown using modern technologies. Even if it is not the original, but fabricated one.
The quagga skeleton was only the part of the restoration and conservation project that is still being carried out in the Grant Museum of Zoology. So far 31 of the 39 specimens have been conserved, including the Museum’s largest skeleton – the (hornless) Indian one-horned rhino skeleton, the skull of a giant deer and endangered chimpanzee skeletons. However, this project is also a lot about cleaning – museum is very old and used to be lit by oil lamps, which means that skeletons were covered in old grime. It also required some work because in olden days science and conservations techniques were not as advanced – quagga was mounted on an iron frame, neck was upside down and the legs did not fit into their sockets anymore, since then the spine had sagged under its own weight.
Now the extremely rare and valuable quagga skeleton is standing in its former glory on all four legs. Modern science is able to create many extremely advanced prosthetic limbs, even if the animal is extinct for a long time.