ID of Alaskan furs intro

Elk

Elk

Caribou

Caribou

Working on a project right now to come up with a reference key for Alaskan furs.  Got the idea when I began working on a child’s parka made of a baby caribou, with some trim that seems like mink and a sunburst ruff that appears to be wolf and wolverine.  Also tried to pin down whether some fur tufts on a gut hat were wool or baby seal and it turns out they are probably cotton!  Certain things about the pelt, such as length and density of guard hairs, plushness of the underfur, markings,  etc are visible to the naked eye.  But another realm of information is available by examining the hairs under the polarized light microscope.  The appearance (or absence) of the medulla, the medullary index, the cuticular scale pattern and changes in these things along the length of the hair are quite interesting.  I am not yet sure if I will be able to pinpoint certain similar animals, like caribou from moose or mink from marten, but it might be possible.  And there is considerable information about what range each animal has and which cultures tend to utilize them.  The beauty of this project is that the animals used are finite.  I’m making a list of them, and have samples of about half so far.  I’m not sure the right way to disseminate this information once it is gathered.  I like the peer review process offered by publications like JAIC, but a website would really allow the most extensive use of images, which are really helpful.  I have a wonderful Olympus BX51 PLM, but need to get a camera for it to start building up a library of images.  I’ve mentioned the project to the 4 major US grad programs and might take on an intern this summer to push the project to the next level.

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4 Responses to ID of Alaskan furs intro

  1. Mendi says:

    Is this related to the blanket you were looking at in your search for dog wool? Did you ever find any?

  2. ellencarrlee says:

    The dog wool research was being done by an independent researcher, and I was serving as an intermediary to take samples from the fabulous Salish blanket that is in the House of Wickersham collection here in Juneau, and therefore property of the State of Alaska through the Parks Department. I’m not sure if he has finished his analysis. This fur ID project is unrelated. However, it would be quite easy to distinguish hair of a hoofed mammal from the hair of a canid under the microscope. Whether I could say “dog” over wolf or fox would be a little trickier, but perhaps possible. Attributing it to the specific kind of dog the Salish are said to have raised would be really hard, maybe even with a comparative sample from a pelt of one of the “wool dogs” that the Smithsonian is said to have. The Salish and their wool dogs are not Alaskan, however, so they fall a bit outside my scope.

  3. Landis Smith says:

    This is a great project, Ellen, and sorely needed. Even our mammalogists seem to have trouble differentiating among the hairs of these animals. I vote for posting your pictures on the website – they can be seen so much more clearly that way.
    By the way, I have found that taking casts and cross-sections of hairs can be helpful as well…

    I’m glad you made the point about cultural background research as an essential step in materials ID! It can be surprising how often this step is omitted with a tendency to go right for the analytical tools.

  4. Valery Monahan says:

    Great idea for a blog Ellen!

    I agree that the mammalogists are not much help with hair ID. Someone who does it full-time, or at least on a very regular basis is a much better resource. The cultural component is definitely important. It can provide some idea of what non-local pelts likely to have been traded into the region and an understanding what part of each animal was preferred for the manufacture of particular items. As I understand it, hair diagnostic features are not always present on every hair across an animals full pelt. So, you really need to have a complete pelt for comparison and it really helps to know (as an example) that hide tobaggans were made from caribou leg hide so that your comparisons are as relevant as possible.

    I use the Yukon Environment Wildlife lab. when I need pelt ID’s. They provide technical services for the government biologists and (more critically) they ID confiscated material when poaching or animal part smuggling is suspected. If there is a similar Fed. or Alaskan facility near you, they might be a good source for advice as you set up your collection.

    It was great seeing you in Juneau!

    Val

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