Career collectorMammalian paleontologist turns apartment into specimen showcase
By Jennifer Vanasco
Darin Croft thinks of his apartment as a small private museum.
"Everything in my apartment is nature-related," said Croft, a doctoral candidate in Organismal Biology & Anatomy and a mammalian paleontologist who studies fossils of South American mammals. "Most people don't really understand what paleontologists do, so I like having people over and showing them the way we use skulls and bones to compare fossils with animals living today."
Croft's displays feature animal skulls, bones and fossils, rocks and minerals, sea shells and other sea animals -- star fish, sea urchins, horseshoe crabs. Then there are the live specimens. More than 70 plants, a fire skink, fire-bellied newts, an aquarium of tropical fish, a freshwater stingray, a short-tailed opossum, giant millipedes, tiger salamanders, a ball python, a green tree frog, freshwater shrimp and sand crabs.
"I also collect antiques -- barbed wire from the turn of the century, old science and natural history books, farm tools, old traps, wooden crates, oil lamps, cream cans," Croft said. "I want my apartment to have a homey, farmhouse feel to it. I grew up in Omaha, and I enjoy the culture and history of people in the Midwest."
Part of what fuels Croft to collect is the opinion that history, whether natural or social, is fascinating, and that one doesn't need to travel to exotic places to find interesting specimens -- they're all around. Once a year he goes back to the classroom of his third-grade teacher to teach students where to find fossils in Nebraska and how to identify them.
As a child, Croft collected coins, stamps, feathers and sea shells -- even though he had never seen the ocean. He remembers going to the grocery store as a child with his grandmother. "There were all these nets above the fish counter holding shells and things, and trapped in one loop was this sun star, a kind of star fish with 20 to 30 legs," Croft says. "We talked the guy into pulling it from the nets and giving it to us."
Croft is more sophisticated about his collecting now, though many of his finds are serendipitous. When he was working as a horticulturalist in the jungle building at the Omaha Zoo, he came across a skull of a common marmoset -- a small primate -- which his supervisor let him keep. And while exploring the ravines on his cousin's ranch he discovered the pelvis of a woolly mammoth or a mastodon, he's not sure which.
Like many biologists, one of Croft's most prized collections is that of his animal skulls. "People tend to associate skulls with Halloween or death. But skulls can tell you almost everything about an animal, from their diet to whether they are predators to how good their sense of smell is. Skulls are amazing works of engineering," Croft said.
Croft has collected most of his skulls himself, but some are sent to him by friends. "After all, there aren't a lot of people outside of biology who do this," he said, laughing.
He has found skulls while fossil hunting in Montana and by collecting road kills and other dead animals. He has learned the trick of cleaning bones from other biologists and museum curators. "There are several ways of going about it," he said. "Bones in dry places, like Montana, have usually been cleaned by the elements when you find them."
Skulls can also be macerated -- that is, put in water and left to rot. "It's best to do that outside," Croft said. "I usually put an open jar on the roof of my apartment building." Skulls are also cleaned by burying them, by skinning off the flesh, or by putting them in a container of dermestid beetles, which is what the Field Museum uses to clean its bones.
"Nature is always the best way to clean anything," he added.
Croft, who has a "very understanding roommate" sharing his two-bedroom apartment, said that visitors are likely to make one of three statements: "This doesn't feel like a grad student apartment"; "It's very homey in here"; or "Wow, you sure have a lot of stuff."
"I do have a lot of stuff," Croft admits. "It's a diversion from academic life, and my friends enjoy it. I'm always in the middle of some project and I'm always adding things. I guess I like being busy."