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NATURE'S FIRST CURATOR
The scene was right out of the late, late spook show. In the dead of night, while coyotes howled in the distance, someone or—shudder!—some thing was prowling the dank recesses of the man-made cave in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Tucson and making off with the bones and fur from the prehistoric ground sloth exhibit. Clearly a caper worthy of Vincent Price or The Blob.
The dark mystery came to light a few weeks ago when William Panczner, the museum's curator of earth sciences, noted the disappearance of a swatch of acrylic sloth fur. Then, one by one, the ceramic bones and other bits of the exhibit vanished. On occasion, the marauder seemed bent on making the display more authentic by leaving behind prickly pears and coyote bones. Other times, as if to debunk the prehistoric label, he/she/it strewed the area with gum wrappers.
As suspicions mounted, Panczner took flashlight in hand and, following a telltale trail to a niche in the plastic rocks, discovered the culprit's hideout—a pack rat's nest furnished with sloth fur.
An indulgent landlord, Panczner says he is "delighted that a pack rat found our depiction of a limestone cave so realistic that he moved in." Though he "only met the critter once"—a brief, chance encounter one rainy afternoon—he recognizes its squatter's rights. The acquisitive pack rats, he says, are "nature's first curators, collecting cactus and other local plant and animal remains for their nests." In fact, pack-rat middens, preserved in urine and dating back some 20,000 years, are now recognized as "miniature museums" and are a rich source of study for paleontologists.
"Our guest was merely building his own display," says Panczner, who has worked out a loan arrangement with the wee timorous beastie. Artifacts borrowed at night are recovered by day—with one exception. "We finally gave up on the simulated hair," Panczner says. "If he felt he needed it worse than we did, we let him have it. He's probably the only pack rat in existence with a fur-lined nest."
Besides, it wouldn't do for a fellow curator to bed down on cactus spines.