Penn State

Penn State researcher explores DNA of Nittany lion

Penn State professor George Perry, left, and Maya Evanitsky search for the best place to take the DNA sample from the skin of a stuffed Eastern mountain lion in the Penn State All-Sports museum to study it in comparison to today's mountain lions.
Penn State professor George Perry, left, and Maya Evanitsky search for the best place to take the DNA sample from the skin of a stuffed Eastern mountain lion in the Penn State All-Sports museum to study it in comparison to today's mountain lions. CDT photo

There was a time when Nittany Lions didn’t wear helmets and cleats, when they did not do push-ups after a touchdown or crowd-surf through Beaver Stadium.

Once upon a time, the ancestors of Penn State’s ferocious felines prowled the hills and woods of Pennsylvania, a feared predator. But that was more than 100 years ago. Today, the Eastern mountain lion is extinct.

But Penn State research could take a peek into the past to look at the lion that was.

On Monday, Maya Evanitsky, a junior in the Schreyer Honors College, was at the Penn State All-Sports Museum, where the glass was taken off the case that holds what has been called “one of the most complete specimens” of the predator that disappeared in the late 1800s.

She needed some skin from the long-preserved lion that perches on the second floor. He might be long dead, but he still put up quite a fight as she tried to take her sample.

“Nineteenth century taxidermy is not the best logistically for science,” she said as she tried to cut a piece from beneath his chest.

“It’s a tough lion,” said her adviser, assistant professor of anthropology and biology George Perry.

The project started when Perry found out about a project at the University of Maryland, where researchers are trying to map the genome of the terrapin, the namesake of their football team.

“I thought that was absolutely the coolest thing I ever heard,” Perry said.

With an ancient DNA lab at his disposal, he thought about doing the same for the long-gone Nittany lions. It all came together when something else fell apart. Evanitsky was set to work on a different project — exploring human evolution — but her samples weren’t coming in and she had deadlines to face.

When Perry brought up the Nittany lion idea, she wasn’t thrilled.

“It wasn’t humans,” she said. But the more she researched it, the more she got sucked in.

“I realized that it could be really cool,” Evanitsky said. “As a Penn Stater, this is pretty awesome.”

It took lots of trying in different places on the stuffed lion. His claws and teeth are not known to be original. Some places are shored up with glue or plastic as part of the restoration process. Seams are thick and tricky to cut. But finally, Evanitsky got about a 2-inch piece of skin and fur from an area beneath a hind leg.

The next steps are the hard ones.

First there is the money. Evanitsky has a Useed page to try to raise the $12,000 she needs to fund her research. Without that, all hopes of tracking the lion’s DNA are lost.

But she also has to acquire more samples. Evanitsky hopes to have similar samples from other sources assembled by mid-June. That’s when she can take her next steps, beginning to clean the samples, extract the mitochondrial DNA and start to put together a picture of the lions as they were, so it can be compared to its nearest relatives in the Western United States and Florida.

What won’t happen? A “Jurassic Park”-style cloning of the extinct cats.

“No, but that’s always the first question everyone asks,” Perry said.

Instead, he sees the knowledge gained from the mapping as a way to help preserve the animals that are still free in the wild.

“This is about presenting the conservation issue to the broader Penn State community,” Perry said.

Museum Director Ken Hickman was happy to open the exhibit for science.

“It’s very exciting. I can’t wait to see what results from this,” he said.

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