The Natural History Museum of Denmark is the closest thing to a time machine I could have imagined. It looks more like a business building than a guardian of the past, a grey face where concrete has outcompeted glass and been gridded with the stale geometry of dated architecture. In a few years it will be moved to a new structure, I would later learn from one of the curators as he led me upstairs and swiped his access card to open the door to the private mammal collections.
The faint perfume of formaldehyde lingered like a fog beside the jars of wet specimens—snakes, frogs, fetuses—that were luminous greens and golds beneath the fluorescent lights. Small herds of African and Arctic ungulates were corralled together behind glass, grand gestures of taxidermy, artful illusions of life. Walrus ivory hung over the lip of a shelf like the icicle of a melting afterthought, anchored to a simple skull no more than fists of angry bone with a pair of eye sockets. The room felt larger, maybe, than it was; I couldn’t see over the shelves and the mystery of that blindness felt expansive, labyrinthine, like I could get lost between the canopy of caribou tines and the jars of sleeping lizard suspensions.
These were not the public collections. I’d filled out the right forms and sent out the necessary round of emails to explain my intentions with a small part of what might be the largest archive of arctic wilderness. I’d come from Montreal to look at arctic foxes from a hundred years ago in hopes of answering a simple question: How well did the species fare before widespread pollution, before industrial coal and PCB plastics?
Along the country’s coast a fox’s marine menu is often interwoven with pollutants that ride up from America’s eastern seaboard on the conveyor belt currents of the Subpolar Gyre. Over the past few months I’d organized a team of researchers to learn more about how Icelandic foxes are affected by their own diet. And before we set off for Iceland to traverse the mountain backbones of northern fjords to search for foxes by shores thick with eider down, I wanted us to have some context. Preserved from the quiet erasures of time and decay, the bones in the museum could tell us something about how these foxes were before the industrial revolution began turning glaciers to ghosts.
The curator stopped at a yellowed tape label: Alopex lagopus, scrawled above the modern nomenclature Vulpes lagopus: the arctic fox. With few exceptions, most of the skulls came from Greenland, a country within the Kingdom of Denmark. There were boxes full of bones, some full bodies but mostly skulls, for which Greenlandic hunters got paid an extra 10 cents in addition to the 50 they received per pelt. Time and use had chewed the edges of the cardboard to a soft fray, so that when I slipped the top off a boxed collection there was only an airy sigh of resistance. I had set up a tripod on the table with my camera facing down toward a platform of graph paper and the curator left me alone for the next few hours as I began to photograph.
I trained my camera’s focus on the L-curve of each fox mandible and let the heavy shutter—clack—once, twice to be safe, before I turned the jaw over to get the other side. The photos are all we need. Bones that are normally mirror images of each other may develop asymmetrically if a fox is exposed to toxic pollutants or heavy metals, particularly the kinds that cling to the fat of marine animals at all levels of the food chain. The two bones of the lower jaw are a perfect example of the kind of symmetry that could go awry.
The geography of fox bone is drawn up in an altogether different scale from what we’re used to. We understand topography as riots of rock that form mountaintops, or as river deltas that fan their crooked fingers to the sea; all of this a reflection of different forces—hydrologic, biologic, tectonic—that work in concert to form the face of each landscape. But the fox skulls have landmarks too, and the shifting symmetry of these points can tell us about the force of human industry on the fragile, shoreline ecosystems that bridge the dry earth with the ocean.
When I handled the skulls, they were less brittle than I’d imagined, though my graph paper did become littered with bits of dried cartilage and flakes of turbinate bone from the inside of the nose. It could have been months instead of decades that separated their then from my now, that separated the living from the dead, bone that had outlived the bodies that carried them, and the men that carried them further.
For those men, some 150 years before us, their record keeping was an act of faith, a belief that eventually all those common foxes they had ceded from the shores of Greenland might be of consequence.
More information on this research project can be found at www.icelandfox.com
- Caribou Box: Caribou skulls line the top shelf of wooden boxes where other specimens are held. The Natural History Museum of Denmark holds many other arctic species, and boasts the biggest polar bear collection in the world.
- Skull box: The full skeleton of a Greenlandic fox is collected in a box labeled as Canis lagopus, the scientific name first used in 1758. The exact age of this specimen was unknown, but the curator guessed it was from a collection in the late 1800s, acquired after a different zoological museum was closed.
- Arctic fox portrait: This arctic fox skeleton is from northern Iceland. Perra collected the bones from a hunter in January, 2016 and helped to spur her interest in further research.
- Box of skulls: Fox skulls are numbered and stacked in a box. They were collected from the Thule airbase in NW Greenland in 1992, and are part of a more modern dataset within the Museum.
- Sketchbook photo: Perra often illustrates the specimens she photographs; the bones inform much of her artwork, which can be seen on instagram @feral5creativeco and her website www.feral5creativeco.com.