Dr. Van Der Sanden Talks About Bog Bodies



Since our new special exhibit Mummies of the World has officially opened for all to come and see, we thought it would be a good idea to publish a series of blogs about the different kinds of mummies featured in the exhibit.

Oh yes, not all mummies are the same. In fact, not all are created on purpose! Although the Ancient Egyptians and a few other cultures around the world mummified their dead in preparation for the afterlife, the bog bodies of Northern Europe were not “prepared” at all.

The most famous bog bodies (aka “bog mummies”) have been found in places like Ireland, Denmark and Germany, and were mummified by completely natural processes. Some of them may have been simply buried by family and friends, others may have been executed or even sacrificed to Celtic of Irish Deities,  but all were sunk into the moist, air-tight depths of the local bogs.

The air-tight qualities of the thick, mossy material that make up bogs are part of the reason that the bodies are so well preserved. Without oxygen, bacteria can’t survive to do its dirty business of decomposing dead plant and animal material.

In the cold, acidic, anaerobic environment of a bog, not much other than moss can grow. Sphagnum moss is an important part of the makeup of Northern European bogs. As the moss continues to grow, older layers are buried beneath the surface and die. This dead moss does not decompose in the anaerobic environment of the bog, though. Instead, it is compressed deeper and deeper under the surface of the bog until it becomes peat. During this transformative process, chemicals are released that seem to have a further effect on the preservation of the body. The acidity of these chemicals help to stop the growth of bacteria. Tannins are one type of chemical released during this process. These acids are used in the production of leather (you may have also heard the term thrown around in discussions of wine), and in the bog they may help to preserve the soft tissue.

Bog bodies offer a rare opportunity for researchers too peer into the past and examine the bodies of a culture that did not traditionally preserve the bodies of their dead, and so left relatively small number of well preserved remains to be examined by scientists. 

So when you think of mummies, don’t just think of cultures like the Ancient Egyptians, or even those in South America that artificially mummified their dead. Sometimes nature does all the work. Here at HMNS we have even have mummified dinosaurs on display in our Hall of Paleontology!

Return to Paraguay: Conserving the Taguá, a Living Fossil

In 1972, mammalogist Ralph Wetzel and colleagues were studying armadillo ectoparasites in the Paraguayan Chaco when they came upon a peccary (what we call javelina in Texas) that didn’t look like those already known to science. The result was Catagonus wagneri – the Chacoan peccary, known only from a fossil discovered in 1930 by Argentinian paleontologist Rusconi. During the next two decades following this discovery, a cadre of various scientists ventured to Paraguay to learn everything they could about this rare living fossil. Some such as Jon Mayer and Phil Brandt went on to other careers, while others such as noted peccary biologist Lyle Sowls have passed on.


Chacoan peccary or taguá (Catagonus wagneri).

I was fortunate in being the youngest of this earlier wave of scientists. In 2008, for my first blog ever for BEYONDbones, I wrote about my experience in the Paraguayan Chaco, fresh out of undergraduate training. Here is the part relevant to today’s blog, taken directly from the Introduction of the 2008 blog:

“I spent 1989-1990 studying a semi-captive baited herd of Chacoan peccaries (Catagonus wagneri), an endangered medium-sized mammal endemic to the Chaco biome of central South America; taguá is the Guaraní Indian word for this distant relative of the pig sub-order. They are extremely rare, and very few people ever see a live one in the wild. Writing this piece takes me back to a time when I accomplished a lot by knowing very little. Only in my early 20s, I did a lot of growing up during my stint in the Chaco – hot water, electricity, air-conditioning, phones, TVs, stereos, etc. were nonexistent in my life, but the fauna was diverse and abundant, and the studies I was able to accomplish during my time there paved way for a lifetime of disciplined work.”

In early February 2016, I received an invitation to attend an international workshop in Asunción (Paraguay’s capital) dedicated to creating an action plan for the taguá. I received this with very mixed feelings, having not worked intensively with taguá for nearly three decades since I was very young and very green. I contacted the workshop coordinator to express my concern, and she gently and politely let me know that it was her hopes to get all the taguá biologists, present and past, together in one room, where the young could learn from the older and vice-versa. After figuring out how to get to the meeting and get the necessary blessings and permissions, I was holding plane tickets to return to Paraguay…

When I first went to Paraguay in the late 1980s to work with taguá, barely a handful of people were interested in this endangered species, let alone conserving them. I was truly heartened to see that has changed at this workshop!  All the necessary stakeholders were represented at the meeting – not just scientists, but also indigenous Guaraní who depend on taguá for protein and the hide for other uses. Landowners and administrators who advise ranchers on integrating wildlife and ranching were present, including representatives from the Mennonite colonies (Mennonites occupy a good chunk of the range where taguá occur in Paraguay) and important government officials including the heads of National Parks for certain states.


Geographic range of the Taguá in the Chaco of Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina.

In total there more than 30 representatives from the range of the taguá (Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia) as well as a few biologists from other countries who met from late February to early March for a week of intensive meetings. On the first day of the meeting, the taguá biologists worked on reviewing the taguá’s status and distribution, and generating a population viability and habitat suitability analysis (PVHA) using a computer modeling program called Vortex. Various life history parameters from data I collected as a youth were entered into the computer program, and it spat out the number of individuals necessary to conserve the taguá well into the future.


During the remaining three days, participants worked on identifying a vision for the action plan based on the main primary threats to the taguá. Participants were separated into three break-out working groups (habitat loss, hunting, lack of knowledge) to determine isolating problems and goals and actions that address the main threats to the taguá. The latter group (lack of knowledge) also worked on identifying potential roles for captive breeding programs. Additionally, a network of committed professionals and institutions was created to put the recommendations and priority actions into practice.


The habitat loss break-out working group.

I think everyone enjoyed getting to work with other like-minded people toward a common goal. It was a lot of fun reuniting with old friends after so many years, as well as building new friendships. Hopefully, the governments of Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia will incorporate the action plan into their respective conservation planning.

Today, Juan Campos is the director of the project I worked on so many years ago. The project’s name has been changed to CCCI/Proyecto Taguá (translated: Chaco Center for Conservation and Investigations/The Taguá Project). Juan is a true gentleman and is doing some outstanding work!  We are currently making plans to collaborate on various projects.


Juan Campos, left, with a current version of yours truly.


Me circa 1989.

The man who initially sent me to Paraguay was Dr. Kurt Benirschke, who was one of the originators of the concept of breeding endangered species in captivity as a conservation tool. He is also the father of former San Diego Charger’s star kicker, Rolf Benirschke! Kurt instilled some great concepts in me at a very young age, like the one and only medicine you need in life is hard work. He used to tell wonderful stories of wildlife encounters he had in Paraguay and other areas. I remember on one such occasion he was telling me that just 25 years ago (some time around 1964), massive woolly spider monkeys or muriquis (Brachyteles arachnoides) lived in the tri-country region of I’guasu, but sadly the species had gone extinct. One of the most funny, yet very real and bittersweet moments of the week involved some storytelling of my own. Some of the younger biologists, newer yet already very experienced with Paraguay’s wildlife, were lamenting that black howler monkeys (Alouatta caraya) were now becoming extremely rare in Paraguay. I told them they were mistaken, since I remembered them from when I lived in Paraguay just 27 years ago. They were extremely common, even in the neighborhoods of Asunción, where it was possible to see them using utility lines to get around! My new, younger friends looked at each other with shock, then looked at me with suspicion, and cautiously informed me that howler monkeys disappeared from Asunción many years ago. Saddened by this, I realized that things had come full circle – another fantastic, large and charismatic vertebrate had become locally extinct in another span of roughly 25 years. Hopefully it won’t be too late for the taguá…

Why you should care about endangered species today, tomorrow, and every day

The truth of the matter is that we humans are bound to this Earth. As the dominant species, it is easy for us to allow industry and propaganda to run rampant, annihilating whole populations of the animals with which we share the environment. One shepherd will kill the wolf who threatens his flock, one company will dynamite a mountain to extract an ore, and that may be fine. But if all the shepherds and all the companies kill and dynamite at once, that is a menace to the natural world. And as long as we continue to take advantage of quiet places virgin to human feet, or villainize an animal as a man-eating monster, the diversity of life on earth will always be in danger.


A red wolf specimen behind glass appears to be mourning the loss of endangered and extinct species in the case beside it, in Texas, and across the globe. Farish Hall.

The question you have to ask yourself on Endangered Species Day, and every day, is are we really still competing with animals to gain a foothold on this rock we call home, or are we simply the most ruthless? One death by mauling, even 10 or 20 or 120, does not constitute a credible threat to humanity; there are billions of us. Call a shark, a bear, a wolf, a lion, a panther, any apex predator a danger to one or a small group of humans, but the time of fighting to survive in the jungle has passed. True, African villagers still suffer casualties due to contact with lions; yes, trekkers in the Rocky Mountains must remain vigilant for cougars and bears to avoid attacks; and yes, 10 people were killed and 87 were injured worldwide by sharks in 2014, but modern humanity now has the power to slaughter every last individual of any species. It’s not that difficult, and often it’s due simply to the spread of our kind into wild areas for resources or human development.


Less than 1,000 ocelots are thought to survive in the wild. Farish Hall.

In the case of sharks specifically, 97 casualties in 2014 does not and cannot ever justify 100 million sharks killed every year. That’s about 274,000 dead sharks a day, or 11 shark killings per hour. A shark dies at the hands of a human, somewhere, every six minutes. Even nuisance animals aren’t this systematically destroyed. The World Wildlife Fund lists great white sharks as vulnerable on their endangered species directory, facing high risk of extinction in the wild. We don’t know much about shark biology and behavior, but we do know they play an important role at the top of the marine food chain, according to the WWF. They might all die before we get to know them.


Attwater’s greater prairie-chicken exists now only in wildlife refuges. Farish Hall.

Sharks aren’t the only species in danger, of course. Many other animal populations have dwindled to mere hundreds. Biologists count 880 mountain gorillas left in the Virunga Mountains of central Africa. Imagine having only 880 humans on the planet. That’s barely the size of a small town in Texas, one of those places Grampaw says you’ll miss if you blink as you pass by. As few as 3,200 tigers live in the wild across the planet, the WWF says, and giant pandas, the mascot of the organization since 1961, number just above 1,800. Our favorite mammals are nearly gone. Just as gone as the dinosaurs. When they’re gone, they will never come back. Ever.


Native to southern Texas, the jaguarundi is one of many endangered predators. Farish Hall.

In Texas, from the pounding Houston rain to the burning sun of El Paso, the steamy barrier islands to the prairie grasslands and canyons in the panhandle, it seems the big sky country has enough space for everything. But farming and introduction of non-native species, as well as the urban sprawl surrounding our boundless cities, has built a long list of endangered species. Texas Parks and Wildlife lists the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, the Attwater’s greater prairie-chicken, the wooping crane and the red-cockaded woodpecker endangered in Harris County, as well as the red wolf, the smalltooth sawfish, the Houston toad, and the leatherback sea turtle. Some of these exist only in wildlife refuges.


The ivory-billed woodpecker, native to Texas, is critically endangered and thought to be extinct. Animatronic specimen displayed in Farish Hall.

The concrete city landscape of Harris County has replaced the natural habitat, a corner where coastal, wetland, and piney forest environments merge. As the city expands, roaming species like the red wolf are pushed out of their home territories while their numbers decline, but other creatures that rely on this area specifically for the resources the environment provides simply fade away. The Kemp’s Ridley feeds only in muddy or sandy bottom habitats, those brackish areas where swamp meets seawater, and while they migrate across the Gulf, these turtles still require coastline to nest. Other migratory species like the whooping crane use the coast as winter breeding grounds. As development continues, these environments shrink or change enough to kill off such species.


The Carolina parakeet, once native to Texas and most states along the eastern coast of the United States, was declared extinct in 1939. Farish Hall.

Texas used to have its own native parrot, the Carolina parakeet. This beautiful tropical bird with red, yellow and green feathers, suffered devastating losses from deforestation and feather-hunting. It was declared extinct in 1939. Its range extended in the eastern United States from New York to Texas. The Houston Museum of Natural Science has a mounted specimen on display in the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife, alongside many other examples of native and endangered species. Apart from taxidermy, this parrot exists only in the imagination.


The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker is losing its habitat in Texas due to loss of the piney woods environment in which it lives and hunts. Farish Hall.

Next week, HMNS guests concerned about endangered species can come to the Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology, a new permanent exhibit adjacent to Farish Hall opening May 22, to learn more about the relationship between the environment and the economy. Some of Texas’s iconic species, including rare and endangered plants and animals, will appear on display. After touring these exhibits, visit the 100 awe-inspiring images of the 50 Years of Wildlife Photographer of the Year display. Some of these, like the photos of legal lion hunting, hyenas eating from a human garbage dump, and prospectors destroying thousands of acres of virginal forest for minerals, reveal just how awful things can get when we neglect the natural world.


A quote by William Beabe in the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife reminds us why we should care about endangered species.

Why should you care about extinction on Endangered Species Day? Because if a species dies out, it never comes back. Every creature is important, unique in its behaviors or adaptations or the shape and color of its body. If these creatures disappear, the only way we can get to know them is through history and in museums, not through personal experience. We will never know what we could have learned from them. We are the stewards of this planet now, not its owners. We rely on it much more than it relies on us. If we don’t help preserve life, these endangered species are as good as stuffed. And when they all die off, we’re next.

Woolly mammoths to walk the earth again?

Thats right. Those giant, tusked behemoths could one day soon walk among us again. Maybe I should start at the beginning.

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© Photo credit: Florent Herry

In 2007, a reindeer breeder in the Yamal Peninsula of Siberia named Yuri Khudi discovered a one month old baby woolly mammoth. The baby mammoth, dubbed Lyuba, is roughly 40,000 years old and almost perfectly preserved (missing only her fur and toenails.) Lyuba either suffocated by sinking in mud or drowned in a muddy river.

Large amounts of mud were found in her mouth, trunk and trachea, suggesting that she asphyxiated. This sealed out oxygen and microbes that normally break down soft tissue and helped keep Lyuba perserved. Her body then dehydrated and shrunk to about half of her normal size. Lyuba now stands about waist high on the average person. The permafrost of Siberia then covered her and kept her in pristine condition until she was uncovered 40,000 years later.

Interested? So was National Geographic. They created a documentary about Lyula, the best-preserved baby mammoth ever discovered. Waking the Baby Mammoth premieres this Sunday, April 26, at 8 p.m. Central time, and follows Yuri’s amazing find and the fascinating process of discovery as scientists work to unravel Lyula’s mysteries.  (Check out the video preview below)They investigate the body of the mammoth, learning how she briefly lived and theorizing how she died. The documentary includes CGI graphics that help show how Lyuba and her family might have looked as they survived the harsh conditions of Siberia during the ice age.

Some other things you might not know about wooly mammoths:

The word “mammoth” is thought to have originated from an old Vogul word for “earth.”

Woolly Mammoths began dying out about 10,000 years ago, around the end of the ice age. A small population of dwarfed mammoths survived in Alaska until roughly 3,700 years ago; however, the majority died out long before then.

The first largely intact frozen mammoth carcass was discovered in 1799 in Siberia.

One of the longest mammoth tusks ever found was 16 feet long and weighed more than 200 pounds.

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Mammoths are very closely related to the Asian Elephant (they share 99.4 percent of their DNA.) It is possible to take the sperm from a mammoth and impregnant the egg of an elephant, and use a female elephant to incubate. This would give birth to a mammoth/elephant hybrid.

From there, it would be possible to impregnate the hybrid to create an offspring that was even more closely related to the ancient mammoths. In a similar process, you could also take a woolly mammoth egg and clone it to create  a woolly mammoth.

The woolly mammoth genome was the first genome to be reconstructed from an extinct animal It has 4.7 billion base pairs and is the largest known mammal genome.