Volunteer at UM’s Zoological Museum Donates Much More Than Time

Larry DePute is a resurrecter.

From salvaged bird carcasses, he makes finely detailed articulated skeletons. The animals peer down from branches or hover in the air on bony wings. Side by side with a mounted specimen, they can educate viewers on the structure underlaying muscle and bone, the unique physiology of birds that allow them to walk, float and fly.

DePute is not a wildlife biologist, but a volunteer at UM’s Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum. His interest sprung from a lifetime in the medical field, and a passion for both birding and piloting planes. An Alaskan for the past 36 years, he moved to Missoula with his wife, Connie, four years ago.

He wanted to re-articulate an eagle he’d brought with him, and new friends at the Montana Natural History Center referred him to the Wright, where the interim curator offered him a place to work. Then the curator asked for help dealing with some birds in the freezer.

“It kinda snowballed from there,” DePute says.

He’s now one of their most dedicated volunteers. He’s re-articulated large birds, among them an American white pelican, a trumpeter swan, a bald eagle, a sandhill crane, a snow goose, a great horned owl and a number of ospreys. He’s working his way down to the smaller birds, whose delicate bones make re-articulation more of a challenge.

It’s an important contribution to a museum that already boasts the largest assemblage of bird and mammal specimens in the state.

The Wright Museum started as a small ornithological collection brought to Montana in the 1890s by Morton Elrod, the University’s first biology professor. Another professor and former curator, mammologist and ornithologist Philip Wright, strengthened the collection during the 1960s and 70s. (The museum was later named in his honor.)

Today the museum contains over 22,000 specimens dating from the contemporary period back to the 1880s.

“It’s like a biodiversity library,” says Libby Beckman, the museum’s curator. “People can come to the collection and ask questions about biodiversity through space and time.”

Contemporary technology allows researchers to do exciting work. Recently, Beckman got a request to sample tissue from the toe pads of several American badgers collected across Montana from 1940 to 1970. By extracting the DNA from individuals collected in different time periods, the researcher hopes to learn more about populations today versus in the past.

The collection is also a valuable educational tool. In addition to the “traveling trucks” full of specimens that local teachers can check out, the museum provides a rare chance for UM students to explore museum science. It’s a competitive industry to break into, and hands-on experience is often the difference between landing a job and not.

“Larry and I talked about how it’s really hard for undergraduates and grad students to budget in the time to learn museum science,” says Beckman.

DePute decided to make a commitment in his estate plan to support a part-time, paid curatorial assistant. The assistant will learn valuable skills in the natural history field, from how to prepare specimens to compiling data to processing loans.

“The help is going to be invaluable to the curator, and it gives the student time to really master museum science,” says Beckman. “It’s a really generous gift that will make a big different for both students and the collection itself.”

There are so many specimens in freezers around campus that staff and volunteers can hardly keep up. DePute hopes that, by funding a curatorial assistant, he can help the museum document this more current Montana biodiversity.

There will soon be more space for incoming specimens. Generous donors helped the museum renovate its storage room, and a grant is underwriting new cabinets and compacting stacks, which will increase storage capacity by 50 percent.

Some of DePute’s birds are also winging their way to the Montana Natural History Center, where they’ll be on display for all to see. That’s really what gets DePute going.

“What I’m doing is fun for me, but what so, so cool is how the specimens turn out,” he says. “Everybody can look at them and enjoy them.”

Although the Wright Museum is a teaching and research collection and not accessible for public visits, you can explore specimens online at hs.umt.edu/umzm. To learn more about how you might volunteer or support the museum, email libby.beckman@umontana.edu.