The Bone Collectors

A pair of biologists on Cumberland Island save the remains of dead sea critters for others to study

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On the northern end of Cumberland Island, off the southern coast of Georgia, just across a sandy track from the tiny First African Baptist Church—yes, the one where JFK, Jr., was married—a black vulture greets me in a cluttered compound of wooden buildings. The buzzard perches on a tall fence post, fixes me with a sooty glare and woofs twice, like a small dog. A single drop of saliva glistens from the tip of its decurved beak.

"You get to where you don’t even notice them," Carol Ruckdeschel assures me, nodding toward two more of the scavengers strutting beyond a small garden. Ruckdeschel is slender and pigtailed, her braids the color of live-oak acorns. She holds a scalpel in one hand. In the other she grasps the body of a double-crested cormorant that turned up dead on Cumberland’s beach. The vulture spies the corpse and shifts its weight from one foot to the other. Its time will come.

Each year, 50,000 people visit Cumberland Island National Seashore, most of them accessing what is one of the largest barrier islands on the Atlantic Coast via ferry from Saint Marys, Georgia. They come for the famous live-oak groves, deserted stretches of pristine sand and soaring dune fields. I’ve come for a 20- by 40-foot bare-bones plywood building, the Cumberland Island Museum. It is unadorned and has only one window; sitting inside, you could just as easily be in Nevada, or downtown Atlanta.

The "museum" is actually a research collection, not an exhibition for visitors. There are no public programs; in fact, getting to the Cumberland Island Museum requires a 12-mile hike, much of it through a federally designated wilderness area. But the museum has something even more valuable than the island’s idyllic allure: it houses one of the world’s largest collections of sea turtle skulls, shells and skeletal remains.

 There are bones by the barrelful. Bones bagged and boxed and stacked ten feet high. Bones on the porch, bones in the attic. With few exceptions, they have been collected, cleaned and preserved by Ruckdeschel. She moved here in 1973, after a three-year stint as a biologist with the State of Georgia and a brush with minor fame, thanks to John McPhee’s profile of her in the New Yorker that same year. Once a week for the past two decades, she has monitored the entire 17-mile stretch of Cumberland beach for the washed-up carcasses of turtles, marine mammals and birds. Most of the sea turtles, she believes, die in shrimper’s nets. She necropsies each dead turtle, porpoise, whale and manatee; more than 1,700 in all, to date. She documents the other vertebrates she finds, too, like that double-crested cormorant the vulture eyed hungrily, and eventually ate. She picks up litter. She has driven an all-terrain vehicle the equivalent of motoring from New York to Los Angeles seven times.

In the early 1980s, Ruckdeschel met Robert Shoop, a University of Rhode Island professor of biological sciences. Three years ago, he retired and moved to the island. Now they are partners in life and work, environmental activists for the national seashore, and caretakers for its dead.

The three of us step up to the museum’s porch, careful not to disturb Frisbees filled with piles of fragmented shell. I trip over a bucket containing backbones. "I can’t believe you’re interested in all this stuff," Ruckdeschel says. We step into a small office, and then she opens an interior door.

The room is a riot of plywood shelving and secondhand cabinets. From every horizontal surface glint makeshift specimen jars containing the remains of critters and other things Ruckdeschel has found. One shelf is packed with bottles of snakes, each reptile coiled like a spring, milky-eyed. Another shelf groans with the weight of porpoise skulls. A gopher tortoise hangs suspended in a recycled Talk o’ Texas okra pickles jar. A Tang bottle holds alligator hatchlings, asphyxiated in a collapsed nest.

The two biologists lead me through the catacombs, bathed in fluorescent light. "What are those?" I ask. Those, Ruckdeschel answers, are the stomach contents of birds. Here a snow goose. There a sandwich tern. Here three species of shearwater.
"And that?" A mass of parasites from the cranial sinus of a pilot whale. The fetus of a dwarf sperm whale.

A small white egret in a large jar with a yellowed label: Spanish queen olives.


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