Wetenschap - 13 maart 2014

Unusual guest on dissecting table

Roelof Kleis

Snowy owls are extremely rare in the Netherlands. Hugh Jansman (Alterra) got one on his dissecting table.

They are extremely rare in the Netherlands. If they turn up, it is as chance guests who in fact have somehow lost their way. So you can imagine how unusual it is to have one on your dissecting table. At any rate, Hugh Jansman (Alterra) has never come across one before. This story is about the Vlieland snowy owl, found by passers-by last Saturday. Dead. Jansman is dissecting it at the behest of the state forest service. ‘Staatsbos­beheer wants to find out the cause of death, because it is unknown,’ explains Jansman.

‘But unfortunately the bird was reported one day too late. It was found by passers-by on Saturday when the corpse was still very fresh. It was only brought to the local forestry office a day later. A lot of it has been eaten already.’ It is still a beautiful creature lying with an empty chest cavity on Jansman’s dissecting table. Its insides have been skillfully emptied out. ‘The work of seagulls and the crow family,’ thinks Jansman. He can only admit his admiration for the expert job done. If you did not know better you would think a skilled surgeon had been at work here.


Snowy owls are rarely seen in this country. They belong in the tundra regions of the far north of Scandinavia, Russia and North America and Canada. Carl Zuhorn of the Vlieland forestry office spotted a snowy owl on Vlieland for the first time last year. Until then only 17 snowy owls had been spotted in the country. At the end of January it turned out that there was a second snowy owl on the island. It is thought that the second snowy owl may have come off the container ship MSC Monterey, which sailed past Newfoundland in December on its way to Bremerhaven. According to a passenger, nine snowy owls (two males and seven females) alighted on the ship 50 miles off the coast. The passengers reported this when they heard about the Vlieland snowy owl. The last two birds left the ship off the coast of Zeeland. These could be the two that turned up on Vlieland a little later.

Alterra specializes in animal ecology dissections. Jansman and his colleagues regularly cut open dead birds and other small animals. Every otter that bites the dust in the Netherlands comes to Alterra for dissection. As he works on the snowy owl, Jansman points at its taloned feet, covered in thick hair. Against the cold, explains Jansman, while the spring sunshine warms the world  outside.