Penn State junior Maya Evanitsky knelt underneath the "real Nittany Lion" in the All-Sports Museum on Monday, slowly working a razor through the long-dead flesh.
But Evanitsky, wrapped in a white lab coat and facemask, wasn’t up to any criminal mischief.
The section of skin she removed from the stuffed mountain lion – about two inches of leathery material – is part of a Penn State research project that could help lead to a greater understanding of the university’s famed mascot.
“Once we have the skin, we’re going to extract the DNA from it,” Evanitsky says. “We’re going to be able to compare the DNA sequence to other mountain lion species, so we can have a much better look a genetic diversity across species.”
Penn State Professor George Perry is helping Evanitsky lead the undergraduate research team, and is looking forward to seeing the results of Evanitsky’s exhaustively researched thesis.
Perry, who works in Penn State’s ancient DNA lab, says the basic idea behind the project isn’t exactly new. Not long ago, the University of Maryland went through a similar process to map out the DNA of its mascot Testudo, a terrapin turtle.
“Since our mascot, the Nittany Lion is extinct [in the eastern United States], this seemed like a perfect chance to raise awareness of conservation issues while also showing off some of the amazing research our undergrads are doing,” Perry says.
Once Evanitsky is able to map out the DNA from her Nittany Lion sample (her team is currently raising funds to complete the expensive and time-consuming process) she says they’ll be able to compare their results to existing mountain lion populations.
“We have the technology to accomplish projects like this now because DNA sequencing has improved so much,” Evanitsky says. “We’ve been able to obtain DNA from thousands of years ago, so when we thought about this project, it was like ‘why not?”
And this project might be just in time. Although mountain lions haven’t been seen in Pennsylvania since the late 1800’s, Perry says the western population of the species is slowly expanding eastward.
But Evanitsky still faces some challenges before she'll know if her work will yield any useful results. After all, the “real Nittany Lion” is extremely old and has traveled all over the country, being displayed everywhere from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.
Evanitsky also points out that the stuffed cat has been restored using deer fur, plastic plates, glues and all kinds of preserving chemicals, leading to a real risk of contamination with any samples she can collect.
“Taxidermy is not something that’s done for science,” Evanitsky says. “It’s all about how it looks instead of the preservation of the materials.”
Perry jokes that people’s first response to projects like this is to envision some kind Jurassic Park scenario with long-dead animals resurrected from DNA samples – which is not his goal.
Perry wants to give Penn State – and the wider scientific community – a chance to keep other species of mountain lions from going the way of Pennsylvania’s now-extinct Nittany Lions.
“We still have so much trouble conserving what we have today,” Perry says. “This is a chance for us to learn from studying what we’ve lost and apply that to the future.”