May 25, 2019 | 69° F

Geology museum to restore specimen hidden for years

Photo by Courtesy of Bruce Mohn |

Mark Breen-Klein, undergraduate assistant working on the Geology Museum’s restoration project, holds the carapace of an 8-foot crab exoskeleton that will be pieced together this summer.

An 8-foot-long spider crab exoskeleton that usually lives more than 1,000 feet undersea near Japan will make its return to the University’s Geology Museum after the exoskeleton undergoes restoration this summer.

The University received the biological exoskeleton of the crab from the Japanese government in the 19th century as a gift, but it has remained out of sight for nearly 30 years because the crab was becoming fragile, said Patricia Irizarry-Barreto, the associate director at the Geology Museum.

“We took it out of the wall, and we had it for many years away, and now there’s interest. People have seen older pictures, and they are asking about it, so the community wants to see it back in its place,” she said.

To fund the project, the museum has raised about $1,000 out of the $5,000 needed to cover the costs of the project, Irizarry-Barreto said.

“Some people give donations. We have Boy Scout groups, we have schools, we have our membership program that families donate money to,” she said.

Currently, the many pieces that make up the crab exoskeleton are detached from on another. Irizarry-Barreto said the crab restoration is an extensive project that will take about a year to put back together and hopes to have it ready next spring for an exhibit.

The restoration project will be led by University laboratory operations coordinator Bruce Mohn, who will piece the crab back together at his home with the help of Mark Breen-Klein, Mohn’s undergraduate assistant.

“I had done a reconstruction job for the museum on their mastodon skeleton and based on how that project came out they offered me the job of reconstructing crab,” Mohn said.

Crab skeletons differ from human skeletons because they are on the outside, Mohn said.

“Vertebrates — you, me, fish, bird — we have our skeletons on the inside,” he said. “Our muscles are attached to the skeleton. In the [invertebrates], they have their skeletons on the outside or exoskeleton.”

Because the crab pieces are fragile, Mohn said he will apply glue to make the exoskeleton more solid.

“We’ll apply very thin layers over the outside to harden it all up, and then we’ll run some on the inside to harden it some more … then we have to put the different pieces back together again,” he said.

A framework will be built to piece the crab together, Mohn said. The framework will be made out of either polyvinyl chloride pipe or wood. The pieces of pipe or wood will be slid into pieces of the crab so the weight of the crab will hang off of on a frame.

Breen-Klein, a School of Engineering junior, said they will have to figure out the best way to stabilize the exoskeleton from the condition it is in right now.

“It’s not an impossible job, but it’s going to take some time,” Breen-Klein said.

Mohn said he will piece the crab back together through looking at past photographs and visiting the Smithsonian Institution to see where the individual pieces belong.

The restoration project will be conducted outdoors because the glue is toxic and piecing the crab back together also requires warm temperatures, he said. Mohn said he will account for the possibility of bad weather at the time of restoring the crab.

“I’m going to obtain a screen tent and set up all the operations underneath there in case it does rain,” Mohn said.

He said the specimen is unique because there are not many museums that hold exoskeletons of the spider crab other than the Smithsonian.

“It’s something that [students are] never going to see anywhere else other than the Smithsonian, so it’s an uncommon specimen, and if you wanted to see one alive you’d have to jump into a submarine,” Mohn said.

Restoring the crab is part of a larger renovation project in which the Geology Museum hopes to bring back historic pieces back into the exhibit area, Irizarry-Barreto said.

“We actually are renovating some of the older exhibits to try to develop new educational programs for kids for schools, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts,” she said.

By Yashmin Patel

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