Alaska Fur ID Project

What is this website, and how do I use it?

In a nutshell, use these clues and tools to build your case.

The best way to use this resource is to check the INDEX for the animal or animal grouping you are examining, and click on it.  Each one is a separate blog posting, and your comments and observations are most welcome!

Alaska Native artifacts often feature mammal fur, and its identification in our museum collection has been haphazard.  Correct identification can inform cultural attribution, cultural meaning, trade relationships, historical period, methods of manufacture, and authenticity of artifacts.   If a pelt is reasonably complete and the geographic location pinpointed, identification can be quite simple.  But those factors do not always occur with museum artifacts.  In the past, conservators grappling with fur identification had to rely on outside experts or use a reference set for comparative analysis.   The advances of digital imaging and internet technology allow us to make a reference set of images available to the public free of charge, along with analysis and observations.  The goal is for a person with a microscope to make an identification in an afternoon:  “….and after lunch, let’s identify that fur!”   While our focus is to better understand technical aspects of Native artifacts, is also hoped that this project might prove useful to our allies in other professions such as zooarchaeology, biology and forensics.  Our review of the literature on fur ID suggests there are several “tools in the toolbox” but many references have not fully exploited all the tools, choosing to focus on only a few.  We have a blog posting for each animal, with various data gathered for each tool, and a variety of images.  Below is an explanation of what information we are gathering for each animal:

Length: Measured in millimeters.  We try to indicate how each source was measuring.  Some use a maximum length which is usually the longest guard hairs on the center back near the shoulders (dorsal hairs.)  Some use an average instead.  We measure these directly off the pelt with the hair in place, putting a metal rule at the skin and seeing how far the tip reaches.

Diameter Range: Measurement in microns at the widest part of the hair.  “Range” means measurements taken at the widest part of each hair, NOT the various widths along the shaft of a single hair.

Medulla: The central area of the hair.  Sometimes the medulla is variable along the length of the hair.  There is usually a primary medullary classification: Absent,  Continuous, Interrupted, Fragmented.  See glossary for specifics.  SEM images can see much more, but for our purposes we are looking for a pattern or certain unambiguous features.

Medullary Index: Ratio of the width of the medulla to the diameter of the hair at the point of greatest hair width.  Since the medulla is always smaller than the overall hair, it will be a number less than one.  This one is a useful number because our findings correlate well with the literature.

Color: Large clumps of pigment granules and air spaces scattered throughout the cortex.  An individual hair may be banded (change drastically in a short distance along the shaft), like stripes) and the colors and order of the banding can be diagnostic.  Also, the pigmentation of the hair might show special features, such as a clumping of pigment particles near the medulla as opposed to evenly distributed throughout the cortex.  Dyed fur will show pigment in the cuticle, when usually that is unpigmented.  For the overall color of the animal, see “Macro Qualities”

Scales:  We tend to be verbose on this one, since the standard references use many non-standardized terms.  The images will be especially helpful here.  The shape at the edges of the scales (margins) can be diagnostic, as can their spacing, since some are very close together while others are spaced far apart.  Some hairs will have one kind of scale close to the skin, and a completely different kind of scale near the tip.

Macro Qualities: The way the fur appears to the naked eye, including information about the pelt.

Cultures: An incomplete listing of how Alaskans have used the fur of the animal.  We are adding to this as we go along.

Notes: Extra information that doesn’t fit in other categories.

Troubleshooting: How to differentiate the hair on this animal from other similar animals.  This is where we might determine that a cross section or a scale casting is worth your while.

Range: General idea of where the animal is found.

Names: Nomenclature is ever-evolving, but we follow the 2008 Alaska Department of Fish and Game scientific names whenever possible.  Old names are given to help interpret the older literature.


We selected about 50 mammals whose fur is thought to be seen on artifacts in the collection of the Alaska State Museum.  A few are not really “Alaskan” such as cow or dog, but the fur is seen on artifacts made in Alaska.  Certain ones, like marmot and flying squirrel, might not actually be used at all, but the creature is similar to other animals that are used.  Shrews, moles, mice, bats and the like were NOT included in this study because they are generally not used to make artifacts.  The hairs of those tiny mammals happen to be much more difficult to identify using the techniques we are employing.  Here are the animals in this project:

ORDER ARTIODACTYLA (the even-toed ungulates)

Family Cervidae (the cervids)

Caribou/ Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)

Moose (Alces alces)

Roosevelt Elk/ Olympic Elk (Cervus Canadensis Roosevelt)

Sitka Black-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis)

Family Bovidae (the bovids)

American Bison ( Bison bison)

Calf/ Cattle (Bos Taurus)

Dall Sheep (Ovis dalli dalli)

Mountain Goat (Oreamnos americanus)

Muskox (Ovibos moschatus)


ORDER CARNIVORA (the carnivores)

Family Canidae (the canids)

Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus)

Coyote (Canis latrans incolatus)

Dog (Canis lupus familiaris)

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)

Wolf (Canis lupus)

Family Felidae  (the felines)

Lynx (Lynx Canadensis) no bobcat

Family Mustelidae (the mustelids)

Fisher (Martes pennati)

Least Weasel (Mustela nivalis)

American Marten (Martes americana)

Mink (Neovison vison)

River Otter (Londra canadensis)

Sable (Martes zibellina)

Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris)

Short-tailed Weasel (Mustela erminea) “stoat” “ermine”

Wolverine (Gulo gulo)

Family Ursidae (the ursids)

Black Bear (Ursus americanus)

Brown Bear (Ursus arctos)

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)

Suborder/superfamily Pinnipedia (the pinnipeds)

Family Otarvidae (the otarvids)

Northern Fur Seal (Callorhinus ursinus)

Steller Sea Lion (Eumetopias jubatus)

Family Phocidae (the phocids=earless seals)

Bearded Seal (Erignathus barbatus)

Harbor Seal (Phoca vitulina)

Ribbon Seal (Phoca fasciata)

Ringed Seal (Phoca hispidia)

Spotted Seal (Phoca largha)

ORDER LAGOMORPHA (the lagomorphs)

Alaskan Hare/ Tundra Hare (Lepus othus)

Collared Pika (Ochotona collaris)

Snowshoe Hare/ Varying Hare (Lepus americanus) no arctic hare

ORDER RODENTIA (the rodents)

Alaska Marmot (Marmota broweri)

Arctic Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus parryii)

Beaver (Castor canadensis)

Hoary Marmot (Marmota caligata)

Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus)

Northern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus yukonensis)

Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum)

Raccoon (Procyon lotor)

Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)

Woodchuck (Marmota monax)


  1. JP Brown
    Posted June 6, 2011 at 5:40 am | Permalink | Reply

    Great job with this site — bags of useful information. Any thoughts on organizing range data (e.g. medullary index) as an index?

    I caught the following:

    Medullary Index: Ratio of the width of the medulla to the diameter of the hair at the point of greatest hair width. Since the medulla is always smaller than the overall hair, it will be a number less than _zero_.

    should read

    Medullary Index: Ratio of the width of the medulla to the diameter of the hair at the point of greatest hair width. Since the medulla is always smaller than the overall hair, it will be a number less than _one_.

    • Posted June 11, 2011 at 3:08 am | Permalink | Reply

      Good catch on the less-than-one…I corrected that. Thanks! Range data and comparative things like that are still coming. We needed to get a baseline of each animal to start doing comparative things and see what the real limitations are with using 200X or 400X and all these different pieces of data. We’re looking to make this as user-friendly as possible and still keep the end user responsible for the judgement calls and weighing the evidence. Its a work in progress, but now there’s more data on Alaskan critters than when I started….

  2. Sally
    Posted January 18, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Delighted to find this site, particularly the microscope images. A few questions:

    Is there a way to filter the entries with images?

    Is this work ongoing, and are more microscope images available/forthcoming?

    In order to examine the scales of animal fibers, do you recommend 400x magnification? Did you also work with higher magnification? I’m curious to see 1000x images if you have any.


    • Posted January 18, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Hi Sally, you caught me at a good time…I’m getting ready to add more overall images of animals. I do plan to add more photos under the microscope, but it is slow going as I have a lot of other commitments. I am particularly keen to add more comparative scale pattern images under the groupings, as many change along the length and that’s an important clue. I think 200X and 400X are the most useful, and 1000X is too much…it makes you look at details that are not going to give reliable ID due to the range of variation in each animal. Kind of like trying to recognize someone’s face from just an image of their nose. Most of the entries have images, I don’t think I understand your question about filtering. If you’re examining something specific, I’d be happy to chat in more detail.

  3. Sally
    Posted January 18, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Permalink | Reply

    note to moderator:
    in the previous comment (which is really email to the appropriate person), i meant to check the box to “Notify me of follow-up comments via email.” Please do so.

    I’d be delighted to see more microscope images, feel free to email to the address above.

    Thank you.

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