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Beneficial Bones and Sensational Skulls

“It’s a dinosaur! It’s a dinosaur bone!” A boy around 6 years old shouts excitedly as he points at the black bear skull sitting atop one of our educational carts. “That’s a great guess! Tell me why do you think it’s a dinosaur?” I tell him with a smile before starting a series of questions and answers (What do you notice about this skull? Where are its teeth? Based on the type of teeth it has, what do you think this animal would eat?). These questions eventually lead him to understanding that it’s actually a black bear skull, and that the giant panda that he’s about to see is also a bear. This is one of the benefits of using these kinds of tools in an educational setting. They inspire inquiry, observation, curiosity and interaction.

A little bit of Zoo lingo …”Biofacts” are items that were once part of a living organism that haven’t been radically altered by human activity, with the exception of preparation for educational use (cleaning of a real skull, mounting in a display, etc.). We also use this term to refer to replicas of parts of living organisms. Some examples of biofacts are real or replica skulls and bones, feathers, footprints, hair or fur samples, pelts and preserved insects. “Artifacts” represent biological or cultural items or may have been created from living organisms for human use. Artifacts include things like jewelry, instruments, pottery and clothing. In the field of archaeology, there are even more terms used to further classify and define both biofacts and artifacts. At Zoo Atlanta, we refer to our collection of over 1,100 individual biofacts and artifacts as the “Biofact Collection.”

Why include these in our education programming? Why would you want to include them in yours? One reason is that they help us appeal to different learning styles and encourage students to use their senses. Another reason is that they help students and our guests experience something that is unique to the Zoo. For example, there are only four Zoos in the U.S. that house giant pandas. Our Education Team can tell you all about giant pandas, their conservation story, and bring along a skull replica, a real fur sample, and some of their favorite food, bamboo, to engage the senses and encourage an inquiry-based learning experience. This of course applies to more than giant pandas – we utilize biofacts in almost all of our programs and have found that it can help create “wow!” moments for our audiences of all ages.

Where do these wonderful educational tools come from? At Zoo Atlanta, we have a number of sources. Some of the biofacts and artifacts in our collection come from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service confiscates illegally trafficked animal products, which are shockingly more common that you’d imagine, and some of those end up being loaned to reputable institutions like zoos, aquariums and museums for educational purposes. While something unfortunate happened to these animals, we hope to help their species by spreading awareness about their threats (like poaching) or teach educational messages so that others of their species don’t suffer the same fate in the long run. Biofacts also sometimes come from animals who lived at the Zoo who have passed away. We believe that the animal can continue making a positive impact and being an ambassador for its species, even after the end of its biological life. Finally, our sources for replicas include vendors like Skulls Unlimited, Bone Clones, or Acorn Naturalists, just to name a few.

Obtaining your own biofacts or artifacts can be a costly endeavor. The good news is that we offer a Cases for Conservation program that provides a free option for educators to check out some of these wonderful educational tools for classroom use! If you choose one of our ZooMobile programs, educators always bring a variety of biofacts related to the lesson plan. Maybe you’ll come visit us here at the Zoo and see one of our Volunteers or Exhibit Interpreters using biofacts out in the Zoo to interact with visitors and your class!

Check out these links for more information about the free Cases for Conservation program and our other education programs.

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