August 2, 2022
Maia Hilke, a UW undergraduate student and volunteer with the UW Vertebrate Museum, Laramie, places a museum tag on a Eurasian boar mount in a temporary storage area at the Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center in UW. Behind her are frames of a capybara and a suede, all from a collection donated to UW by Robert V. “Bob” and Michelle Underwood. (Photo UW Foundation)
The University of Wyoming received a large collection of animal mounts to use for display and research purposes within the UW Vertebrate Museum.
A gift from Robert V. “Bob” and Michelle Underwood, the collection includes mounts of animals such as a grizzly bear, black bear, cougar, moose and pheasants. The gift also includes a wide variety of non-native exotic animals such as rock hyrax, hare, muskox, hartebeest, stone sheep, tahr, caribou, fallow deer, capybara, water buffalo Cape, eland and zebra, among others.
The Underwoods are giving the gift in honor of Michelle’s family, the Rileys, who have deep ties to Wyoming dating back to 1856.
“We are thrilled to donate this collection to the University of Wyoming,” says Bob Underwood. “We wanted people to use, enjoy and learn from the collection for years to come. Having it at the University of Wyoming is the perfect fit. Michelle’s family has been in the state since the 1800s, and our entire family deeply appreciates the state and the university.
The collection will expand research opportunities for UW students and faculty and provide researchers with easier access to species from around the world without additional travel or expense. It will also add to the UW Vertebrate Museum’s growing collection of nearly 12,000 specimens of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish.
The mission of the UW Vertebrate Museum is to document and understand regional and global biodiversity through the acquisition and study of collections in order to advance academic knowledge and public appreciation of the natural world.
The specimens held in the museum are used by many researchers to help understand the mysteries of the natural world. The majority of the museum’s collection are specimens from the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions.
“In addition to scientific research institutions, natural history collections can also be fantastic sources of inspiration and understanding,” says Elizabeth Wommack, curator and head of collections at the UW Museum of Vertebrates. “A collection such as that offered by the Underwoods will give students and researchers the opportunity to develop new outreach and education programs, as well as unique forms of research.”
Researchers can use taxidermy mounts to study an animal’s size, shape, coloring, and texture. At the UW Vertebrate Museum, information about a specimen’s origin is collected, including the date and location of the specimen when it was collected.
A team moves a giraffe mount from a moving truck to temporary storage at UW’s Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center. (Photo UW)
Additionally, these types of specimens can serve as historical records of how a certain species may have looked in a certain place at a certain time. For example, a mount of the extinct carnivorous marsupial thylacine, or Tasmanian wolf, is part of a traveling “Extreme Mammals” exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, and a mount of a bumblebee bat, the smallest mammal of the world, is kept at the World Museum of Natural History in California.
Taxidermy mounts can also benefit communities with a unique educational opportunity. There are a variety of ways animals can be mounted that will show different sides of an animal. They can show the typical movements, diet, and environment that a particular animal lives in, and they also allow the public to have an up-close experience with an animal they might never otherwise see.
“Museums are incredible resources for understanding the diversity of life present in space and time,” says Wommack. “By collaborating with many different collectors and scientists, the collections are better able to maintain an accurate record of the amazing diversity of animals present today.”
The UW Museum of Vertebrates is a research-based museum available to faculty, researchers, and students for research opportunities and the public for educational opportunities. Further information about objects in the museum’s collections is available online through the Arctos Digital Database and the UW Vertebrate Museum webpage.
The UW Museum of Vertebrates is also a member of the UW Natural Science Collections Partnership and works closely with other collections to provide outreach, research, and educational opportunities for Wyoming citizens and visitors to the state.
The Rileys have been linked to Wyoming since 1856, when Michelle’s great-great-grandfather, TK Riley, moved across the state at the age of 12 and, due to an early snowfall in October, had to be rescued. The Riley family returned to the state in the 1890s and have been ranching and farming there ever since. The family members served as educators in Burlington for many years, and Michelle’s mother served in numerous state 4-H, educational, and home economics organizations.
Several of Michelle’s family members are UW alumni, and her parents, Ferrel and Cleo, met at UW while they were undergrads. Michelle and Cleo even lived in the Bim Kendall House, now home to the UW Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, for a semester in the mid-1950s while her mother was in the home economics program. Michelle’s brother, Mike, and his wife, Paula, are also UW alumni and stayed in Wyoming — they live on the same lot in Burlington that TK Riley lived on all those years ago.