The human skeletons held here at the McGregor Museum are said to come from India (prior to the 1985 ban on the export of human remains) although even past curators are unsure of their origin. The subject of the origin of such remains was largely avoided when purchasing and it is believed that many of the models are the result of grave robbing. The shut down of this trade in 1985 has led to a black market in human bones out of India with large reputable institutions still conducting trade in this illegal market according to some investigative journalists. Until there is a pathway set up for voluntarily donating skeletons to science these real human skeletons are an invaluable resource to teaching institutions and digitising such assets ensures their use and maintenance for years to come.


The story of Mollie the Elephant

Our story starts, as many do, in childhood.  Martin Edmond, poet and writer, was living with his mother, poet Lauris Edmond, and father and teacher Trevor Edmond, in Ohakune in the summer of 1957 when the circus came to town.  Bullen’s circus, famed throughout Australasia for its elephants, included a special member – Mollie – who was famous for being able to do a head-stand on her front legs.  The death of Mollie, from tutu poisoning, is both the source of a childhood memory for Martin, and the beginning of the connection with the University of Auckland, through fellow poet and friend, Prof. Michele Leggott, in the English Department.

Michele Leggott, who had learnt that the skull of Mollie resided in the School of Biological Sciences, attempted to track down the location by visiting the office of Mandy Harper (Director Stage 1 Teaching, SBS), who resides in the McGregor / Morton Historic Room in the Old Biology Building.  In a serendipitous event, a museum case containing two elephant skulls (below image), had been rediscovered a few weeks earlier during renovations of a nearby lecture theatre (BLT-100).  These skulls, originally recorded as being part of the McGregor Museum but “lost”, had now been relocated, and provided the inspiration for Michele’s poetry.

So, how did the skull of Mollie the elephant end up in the McGregor Museum? In yet another coincidence, Derek Challis, technician in the former Zoology Department was travelling to work on the Devonport ferry and reading the Auckland Star.  In this newspaper was an article reporting the death of an elephant in Ohakune.  Knowing that Prof. McGregor was keen to get an Asian elephant skull for the teaching collection Derek grabbed an overnight bag and caught the train to Ohakune. With the assistance of a local farmer who provided a cross-saw, and the local butcher who provided knives, Derek and the local high school biology teacher, Peter Jenkins (who later taught in the Zoology Department), flensed the bulk of the soft tissues from Mollie’s skull while immersed in the local Maungatawhero River.  By now the elephant had been dead a few days and this was a less-than-pleasant task.  Finally, the skull was placed in a box and had to be doused with large quantities of perfume from the local store before the New Zealand Railways would transport the box to Auckland. Joan Robb (a past curator of the museum) tells of this during an interview with SBS staff.  Final cleaning and preparation of the elephant for display in the museum was completed in Auckland and the skull is on display, with an African elephant, in McGregor room 3 (Mac 3).  On the skull there are several knife marks that were made during initial cleaning of Mollie’s skull.

In October 2008, a special celebration of the Mollie story, including both poets and scientists was held in the McGregor Museum (poster image), to bring the story of Mollie out of the closet to reside with the rest of the collection.

Poems associated with Molly include:

Haast Eagle or Poukai (Harpagornis moorei)

The life size replica suspended from the ceiling in McGregor room 1 depicts the world’s largest known Eagle. If moas can be considered the avian equivalent of deer, then this was the tiger. It weighed up to 13kg, and even for its size, had proportionately massive claws. The wings appear to have been somewhat shortened, an adaptation also seen in extant eagles living in a forest environment, such as the South American harpy eagle.

Much debate has centred on whether the great eagle was a predator or a scavenger, and whether it flew well, or was principally a ground dweller. The view that it was a scavenger is based on the skull, which is unusually large for an eagle but very similar to that of a vulture, and the fact that its remains are usually found in association with those of moas which have become trapped in swamps or potholes. However, the skull of a vulture is adapted for feeding on large animals, as this eagle did if it hunted moas, while this association of its remains with those of trapped animals probably reflects no more than the tendency of every predator to take advantage of easy prey. Furthermore, it has been pointed out that large scavengers need large predators to supply their needs. Finally, scavengers must be able to hunt with little expenditure of energy, as vultures do by soaring on thermals, but the great eagle could fly only by energy-consuming flapping flight.

The suggestion that it may have been chiefly a ground dweller is based on the supposed shortness of the wings, and the unusual strength and power of the legs. However, the wings were of typical length for a forest eagle, while the strong legs were probably necessary when taking flight since eagle’s spring into the air rather than running into the wind as vultures do. In dense forest near vertical take-offs would often have been necessary.

In all probability the great eagle perched high in the trees, and hurtled down on suitable prey when it passed below. When the Maori arrived, it probably became the world’s only man eating bird (Maori legend certainly suggests this), and thus owes its extinction not only to the destruction of prey species but also to active hunting  by Maori trying to make the forests safe.