Red fox and ruffed grouse diorama at the Dorr Museum.A habitat diorama shows how animals live in their natural environment. It usually contains taxidermy mounts, which are preserved bird or mammal skins stretched over sculpted forms in lifelike poses. The mounts are set in a constructed foreground, often with a painted background. Dioramas capture moments in the lives of animals that would be difficult for people to experience in the wild.

Although they are now ubiquitous in natural history museums around the world, dioramas did not appear in museums until the late 1800s. The first museum habitat diorama, depicting muskrats in a wetland, was created by taxidermy pioneer Carl Akeley in 1889. Akeley believed that his dioramas would preserve the memory of species and habitats that were rapidly being lost to hunting, agriculture, and industrialization. His work inspired the museum-going public to support conservation efforts. The subsequent proliferation of dioramas occurred alongside the increasing recognition of the importance of ecology; animal specimens were more meaningful when shown interacting with the other living and nonliving elements of their environment.

Since the early 1980s, COA students have continued this practice of diorama construction. Below you can explore a few of our many wildlife dioramas…

Atlantic puffin diorama at the Dorr MuseumAtlantic Puffin
Fratercula arctica

Puffins use their beaks and nails to dig burrows in the sides of coastal hills. Each year a female lays one egg— incubated for 42 days by both parents. After hatching, the parents feed the chick whole fish and keep its body warm until its down develops. Once the chick is about six weeks old, it leaves the burrow and travels to the open ocean on its own.

Atlantic puffin taxidermy mount

Puffins have evolved to live and thrive out at sea and spend most of their lives hundreds of miles away from land. Their down feathers keep them warm in their cold habitat. Puffins can dive up to 100 feet for hake, herring, and other small fish. In pursuit of prey, these agile birds flap their wings underwater to gain speed and maneuver precisely with their feet. Thanks to small barbs on the inside of a puffin’s beak, it can hold dozens of small fish at a time.

 

A puffin holding fish in its beak

This diorama features a group of puffins on Matinicus Rock — a small island off the coast of Maine that acts as breeding ground for many species of sea birds. Generations of COA students have done research on Matinicus rock, including Steve Baird ’83. Beginning in the early 80s, he spent time in Newfoundland working on a program to reintroduce puffins. It was there Steve found several puffins that had drowned in fishermen’s nets. They have been immortalized in this diorama, which Steve created with the help of Rick Schauffler ’83 when he returned to COA.

Rick traveled all the way to Matinicus to make a mold of the rock face, complete with the guano splatters, and collect grasses and lichens so that the diorama would be as true to the location as possible. The diorama was completed with the help of museum staff in 1986. Steve now works for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Diorama in the Dorr Museum showing a pair of beavers feeding on aspen.

North American Beaver
Castor canadensis

Beavers are semi-aquatic rodents that have several unique adaptations for living in the wetlands. They have a long flat tail to help maneuver while swimming as well as pat down mud on the structures they create. Their webbed paws allow them to swim faster, and they can hold their breath for up to 15 minutes at a time. In addition, their coat has two thick layers and special waterproofing glands that allow them to keep warm even while diving in a frozen lake.

Beaver taxidermy mountOften called the engineers of the animal kingdom, beavers build dams and lodges out of trees, branches, and mud. Their dams block rivers which create wetlands and their lodges keep them warm at night and during the winter. Beavers can fell trees using their chisel-like front teeth. Although adult beavers can weigh over 40 pounds, some trees are too big to be moved so they often leave it where it fell.

 

Beaver taxidermy mountsThis diorama was created in 1983 by COA students Meg Scheid ’85 and Rick Schauggler ’83 under the direction of Stan Grierson. Meg created the taxidermy. When she was a student, she led beaver walks for Acadia National Park, educating visitors on beaver ecology. She was given permission from the park to collect the beaver-chewed logs used in this diorama. Meg now works for the St Croix National Park Service.

Rick was the expert on foreground construction. He made hundreds, maybe even thousands, of artificial leaves as well as all the other habitat components. He hand-crafted each of the poplar leaves — a beaver’s favorite tree — complete with flat petioles. Rick is now a GIS specialist for the department of U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Diorama in the Dorr Museum showing an encounter between a Great Horned Owl and a striped skunk

Who’s Eating Who?
Found throughout North America, Great-horned Owls (Bubo virginianus) are named for their large pointed ear tufts. With a wingspan that can reach 55 inches, these owls are large enough to eat a variety of prey, including the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis)

A striped skunk feeding on snapping turtle eggsThe hungry skunk has discovered a nest of snapping turtle eggs. But the skunk is about to become a meal itself as the owl swoops down and attacks. Although the skunk is prepared to defend itself from the owl by lifting its tail to spray its foul-smelling musk, owls have a weak sense of smell and are not affected by it.

COA students Steve Baird (owl), Skip Basso (skunk), and Rick Sal (foreground and sapling) created the diorama in 1985 under the direction of Stan Grierson, the founder of COA’s program for exhibit preparation. Stan oversaw the fabrication of many of the dioramas still on display in the Dorr Museum. Steve remembers: Stan had brilliant ideas about how to do taxidermy that could stand up through time, and I think the general condition of those exhibits shows how right he was.