Tag Archives: museum

How to Cheer Your Future Self Up: A Simple 4-Step Plan

I was feeling a little rough this Tuesday afternoon. There was no real excuse for this, or at least none that I’m quite willing to accept. Classes have been going well.* I’ve never felt more secure in my goals. And Tuesday was a gorgeous December day in Seattle, crisp as a ripe Braeburn. I was staring straight at the snowy sides of Rainier above the skyline, in fact, when my feelings were at their roughest. Frankly, it takes a special kind of absorption to be unhappy while one is looking at a peak that magnificent. I won’t bore you with the specifics; I admit this embarrassing evidence of my own humanity only to tell you that a few hours later a delightful thing happened that cheered me right up. And in case any of you have reason to anticipate that at some point in the future you too will be feeling a little rough in spite of mountains, I present the following simple instructions for a remedy.

• Step 1: Skin approximately 400 bird specimens for The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
• Step 2: Wait a few years before feeling a little rough.
• Step 3: Discover that FMNH 472922—a flycatcher specimen you were responsible for prepping—helped confirm the usefulness of a novel field mark, added one new species to the list of birds whose presence has been recorded in Illinois, and enjoyed a star turn in a recent taxonomic paper by a team of ornithologists from the University of New Mexico.
• Step 4: Delight!

If you’re interested in the details of this story (you should be!) I’ll point you toward two posts by Field Museum researcher Josh Engel. Here’s Josh’s introduction to the specific flycatchers the field mark distinguishes between, and here’s his follow-up, which includes a great set of photos and points out a marvelous recent coincidence that will explain the origin of the specimen you see below.

Not FMNH 472922.

Not FMNH 472922.

I should note that Josh is terrific, and well worth following in general. He writes about odd museum-y discoveries and active scientific efforts with equal pleasure and knowledgeability. I can’t seem to find a unique address for his writing that’s more specific than the one for the Field Museum’s general blog, but this link will tell you more about Josh and point you to what he’s published most recently.

I realize, of course, that if I hadn’t prepped FMNH 472922, someone else would have—and quite possibly they’d have done a better job of it. But it’s still pretty exciting to have a first-hand proof of the mantra everyone who’s involved in a natural history collection knows: You can never predict how, or when, something will come in useful. Every specimen has the potential to one day contribute to our understanding of the world. As does every human being, no matter how sorry for herself she might occasionally feel.

* It’s taken a while, but I’m finally competent at predicting the courses of substitution and elimination reactions of alkanes! Miracle of miracles, as the tailor sang.

Five Minutes and a Hair Dryer

In the five years I’ve been skinning I’ve acquired a good many life lessons from it, which is on the one hand a surprising thing to say about the process of removing all of the soft tissue and some of the bone from a bird’s body and replacing it with cotton wool, thread, and a wooden dowel, and on the other hand entirely unsurprising, since we all learn from the things we spend our time working hard to get better at.

I thought about one of these lessons the other day, when I took these pictures:

Wet Bewick's wren

dry Bewick's wren

The photograph on the top shows a study skin of a female Bewick’s wren (Thyromanes bewickii). Underneath it is the same specimen, five minutes later. The only difference between them is the time I spent drying.

I know this doesn’t sound like much of a life lesson yet, but here it is: Embrace drying.

When a bird is wet—in life as in death—it looks like crap. The barbs and barbules that give feathers a smooth, tight weave when they’re properly preened crumple and stick together. Down turns into a kind of sludge. So for a long time I tried to avoid getting my bird’s feathers wet as I was working, even though I had to use water to keep its skin moist. I have no idea why, but I had somehow collected the ridiculous and unquestioned notion that if a study skin was going to turn out well, it had to look good all the way along.

But washing a bird really helps to remove blood, fat, and dirt from its feathers. And if you commit to the process—a wren might take five minutes to properly dry, a snowy owl upwards of an hour and a half, depending on the temperature and strength of the air stream you use—a good drying can make up for a lot of the things that might have gone wrong in skinning. Maybe you lost a bunch of feathers, or ripped the skin around the skull. A well-dried bird will look like the best version of itself it can possibly be.

If this still doesn’t sound like much of a life lesson, here is a translation: To make something beautiful, be unafraid of making something ugly first.

A corollary: Something you think is ugly might just not be finished yet. It is easy to overlook what it takes to finish.

Either way—you can’t dry what you don’t get wet.

Prep Lab Shenanigans

As most of you probably know, volunteering as a study skin preparator has been a big part of my life since 2008. I used to write a lot more about prep lab life and the birds I skinned at the Field Museum over at my old site, The Science Essayist (all those archives, by the way, are mirrored here). I realize that I haven’t said much at all about volunteering at Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, my new skinning home. Partly that’s because it took me a long time to start feeling comfortable there—something that was not at all the MVZ’s fault, and had much more to do with how close to my heart The Field was and how much I missed it.

Anyway, to make up for this lapse I thought I’d share some photos from the last year in the MVZ lab. Warning: Almost everything you see will be dead. But I did leave out the skinned mouse floating in a bucket of water.

Like hospitals, funeral homes, and graveyards, the prep labs of natural history museums tend to be workplaces where gallows humor thrives. This is just sitting on the shelf above the catalog binders, data sheets, and field guides.

This is just sitting on the shelf above the catalog binders, data sheets, and field guides.

I think these are voles, but don't quote me on it.

I think these are voles, but don’t quote me on it.

I *just today* learned how to ID white-breasted nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis) by two of their calls; they were hopping in Briones Regional Park this morning. This was the first bird I prepped for the MVZ, a beauty of a thing.

I *just today* learned how to ID white-breasted nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis) by ear, or at least by two of their many calls; they were hopping in Briones Regional Park this morning. This was the first bird I prepped for the MVZ, a beauty of a thing.

This is a marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris). Don't you love it when wrens are named for where you'll find them? So helpful. Also, don't you love wrens? They're a little bit perfect.

This is a marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris). Don’t you love it when wrens are named for where you’ll find them? So helpful. Also, don’t you love wrens? They’re a little bit perfect.

This is a juvenile red-breasted sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber); if you've ever seen a pine tree ringed with rows and rows of neat holes, those are likely where sapsuckers have been earning their name.

This is a juvenile red-breasted sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber); if you’ve ever seen a pine tree ringed with rows and rows of neat holes, those are likely where sapsuckers have been earning their name.

Jun Senseri is a professor of anthropology at Cal, and among other things, he studies foodways—the social, cultural, and economic context surrounding how a particular group of people make and eat food. The prep lab has been processing sheep and goat remains that Sunseri collected from indigenous communities after the animals themselves were consumed.

Jun Senseri is a professor of anthropology at Cal, and among other things, he studies foodways—the social, cultural, and economic context surrounding how a particular group of people make and eat food. The prep lab has been processing sheep and goat remains that Sunseri collected from indigenous communities after the animals themselves were consumed.

I do not know why we had a warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) but I'm guessing it was from the zoo. I'm also guessing it had a bit of a violent life (look at that broken tusk!). I have no guesses as to why it chose to wear that embarrassing hat.

I do not know why we had a warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) but I’m guessing it was from the zoo. I’m also guessing it had a bit of a violent life (look at that broken tusk!). I have no guesses as to why it chose to wear that embarrassing hat.

This is a beautiful green-tailed towhee (Pipilo chlorurus); I think this particular bird has unusually dark olive/gray plumage on its back. You can just see a hint of a brighter green—almost yellow—at the edge of the left wing, and that's the same color in the tail that (mostly hidden on this bird) gives it its name.

This is a beautiful green-tailed towhee (Pipilo chlorurus); I think this particular bird has unusually dark olive/gray plumage on its back. You can just see a hint of a brighter green—almost yellow—at the edge of the left wing, and that’s the same color in the tail that (mostly hidden on this bird) gives it its name.

SEA TURTLE UNDERCARRIAGE!

SEA TURTLE UNDERCARRIAGE!

I am not sure what was going on here, but I think it had something to do with things decomposing at a particular temperature.

I am not sure what was going on here, but I think it had something to do with things decomposing at a particular temperature.

If this looks like a hummingbird chick that was mummified in its nest, that is because that is exactly what it is. Sad, but incredibly cool. I can't say for sure, because it came out of a freezer and I'm not sure how the museum acquired it, but if it was from around here it was probably a ruby-throated hummingbird. (Archilochus colubris).

If this looks like a hummingbird chick that was mummified in its nest, that is because that is exactly what it is. Sad, but incredibly cool. I can’t say for sure, because it came out of a freezer and I’m not sure how the museum acquired it, but if it was from around here it was probably a ruby-throated hummingbird. (Archilochus colubris).

These are chipmunk skulls in tiny vials. It doesn't take much room to store a chipmunk skull, which is lucky if that is what you are studying.

These are chipmunk skulls in tiny vials. It doesn’t take much room to store a chipmunk skull, which is lucky if that is what you are studying.

That’s enough of that for now; I’ll try to tell you more about the MVZ when I can. It’s really a very special place, even if it’ll never come close to replacing the Field Museum prep lab in my heart.

*******

One of the other things keeping me busy just lately has been a 10-day virtual book tour I did to promote the new edition of my book Mountainfit. You can find links to all ten stops here; my favorites include:
— This heart-to-heart with the brilliant eclectic Sienna Latham;
— This video chat with the endlessly charming Chris Clarke;
— This Spotify playlist, hosted by book-blogger Introverted Jen, which you can enjoy whether or not you read a single page of the book; and
— This guest post on DeLene’s wonderful blog Wild Muse , about peat moss, sucking bogs, and whiskey.

Many thanks to Jason Pettus, owner of the Chicago Center for Literature and Publishing, for requiring this demanding but rewarding task of all his writers, and to Lori Hettler, CCLaP’s marketing director, for scheduling all these stops.

The Tonic of a Northern Goshawk

I’m leaving Chicago tomorrow to attend Science Online 2012, a small but by all accounts raucous conference that brings together scientists, science writers, and science lovers for a three-day conversation about ways to communicate science in this age we call (rather quaintly) digital.

I feel about this sort of the way you might feel about going bungee jumping: I think it’s going to be fun, but first I need someone to throw my butt off the mountain. As it happens, the person who threw my butt off the mountain was Meera-of-two-months-ago, who registered late one night while she was alone in the house, in a sort of haze of reckless abandon.

At any rate, since I’m going to miss my regular Thursday at the bird lab, I went in today to make up for it—and Dave, who has of late been almost as excited about giving me new species as I am about preparing them—had put out something wonderful for me to work on. It was thawing under a lamp when I walked in, all streaky and soft and pantalooned and raptor-y. It had a long tail, broad, pointed wings, and a beautiful curled bill. It was a Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), a bird I had never seen before either in life or death, and it was breathtaking.

According to the data associated with the bird, it had been picked up on October 12th of last year in Duluth, Minnesota; no other information about its condition or circumstances was available. But I couldn’t see any signs of injury as I prepared it, and it was very thin. Dave thought it might have starved to death; an ill-fitting end for a fierce and clever hunter. Almost every description you read of the Goshawk will tell you that it is such a potent symbol of ferocity that Attila the Hun had its image emblazoned on his helmet: a story that goes back at least to the days of the 16th-century Italian naturalist Aldrovandus.)

I knew the Gos was a bird to admire as soon as I discovered that although it mostly eats grouse, songbirds, and small mammals like rabbits and squirrels, it is also one of only a few birds of prey that will go after corvids like rooks and crows. Corvids are notoriously ingenious, aggressive, and apt to harass falcons, hawks, and owls in great black mobs. In my book, any bird that regularly chooses and vanquishes such a target must have a fine heart, a quick eye, and sharp talons.

As I was skinning, some friends from the Division of Fishes stopped by to make their rounds through the beetle room. One of them, Kevin, is a birder, and he always likes to talk about whatever I happen to be working on when he arrives. Today he told me about once being swarmed by a pair of angry Goshawk protecting their nest, and the eerie sound they made. I’ve since listened to a Goshawk’s alarm call, and it’s a gorgeously harsh, high-pitched wail that’s almost gull-like. I can imagine being startled by it in the middle of a midwestern forest.

T.H. White, whom I otherwise know only from a rapt childhood reading of The Once and Future King and The Sword in the Stone, once owned a young male of the species. He wrote a 200-page book—or, from the few excerpts I’ve read so far, something more like a 200-page love letter to a difficult, complicated and extraordinary friend—about his relationship with the bird. I leave you with his assessment of what it is to find oneself in such a kinship:

The thing about being associated with a hawk is that one cannot be slipshod about it. No hawk can be a pet. There is no sentimentality. In a way, it is the psychiatrist’s art. One is matching one’s mind against another mind with deadly reason and interest. One desires no transference of affection, demands no ignoble homage or gratitude. It is a tonic for the less forthright savagery of the human heart.

The thing about honorably preparing the fallen body of a hawk for scientific study is also that one cannot be slipshod about it. And I don’t think I was.

Northern Goshawk

(Speaking of the Macabre)

This is a preserved specimen that caught my eye after I had finished working on my birds today. On my way out, I walked through the Field’s new permanent exhibition about the museum’s role in advancing conservation science: Restoring Earth.

What’s in the jar is a Blanchard’s cricket frog (Acris crepitans blanchardi).

Cricket frogs get their name from their clear, metallic, insect-like mating call. I’ve also heard it described as the sound of two pebbles being struck together. They’re a type of tree frog, a group whose arboreal lifestyle means its members are usually rather tiny and possess unusual modifications that allow them to cling to leaves and branches. (Like adhesive toe-pads whose stickiness is built around the dynamic duo of nanoscale pillar-structures and mucus!)

Blanchard’s cricket frogs used to be an incredibly common sight in the upper Midwest, but beginning about thirty years ago, people noticed their numbers going into a steep decline. It’s still not absolutely clear why this is so, but one of the best current guesses is that exposure to large amounts of agricultural pesticides may have caused a host of physiological and behavioral changes in the frogs that interfered with their ability to properly reproduce.

I’m posting this because I was struck, especially after what I talked about last time, by how powerfully I was drawn to this particular object in the exhibit. What was alluring was precisely its eerie appearance: drained, almost milk-white, and hanging like a ghost in its jar.

Blanchard’s cricket frogs are beautiful creatures, as a quick image search revealed—I have never seen one myself, at least not knowingly.

And yet I do not think I would necessarily have walked over to and read the text beside a colorful photograph showing one of these little guys in life. This is not at all to my credit—it just happens to be true.

Now, I wonder if the exhibit designers simply wanted to showcase a specimen as it was preserved in the museum, or if, in addition, at some level they knew this about me. (And also, perhaps, about you.)

*******

P.S. This is a good time to point you towards John Bates’s blog. John is one of the curators of the Bird Division at the Field, and he’s not only a lovely and incredibly smart ornithologist, he’s also really invested in educating people about what his team does. He posts frequently (at least by my standards!) and is reliably fascinating. His latest post, about why it’s useful to preserve pre-fledgling age specimens, might be of especial interest.

On The Uses of the Macabre

Happy Halloween! Today seemed like an excellent day to make this post.

Entering the bird lab this past Thursday morning, I found Mary, who usually works at the sink, sitting on a stool beside the large metal prep table that dominates the room. In front of her were two plastic trays; on each, several tidy rows of specimens were arranged. The birds that made up this small collection represented three different species: Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis), Nashville Warblers (Vermivora ruficapilla), and White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis).

All three are extremely common birds in the Chicago area at this time of year, either because they’re migrating through on their way to warmer southern climes, or because they spend the winter here.

And all three are known to me personally from morning walks through the Wooded Island in Jackson Park, the treed and windy urban oasis by the lakefront where I saw the distempered raccoon earlier this spring. I love the sight of dozens of dark gray Juncos against patches of snow on the ground, like a fireplace’s worth of cinders someone has rolled up into cozy little balls. Nashville warblers make jaunty little tail flicks as they forage through low trees and shrubs (often that’s all I see of them, an olive whisk-whisk-whisk before they rustle away through the leaves). And the mustard-yellow smudges next to each eye on White-throated Sparrows always make me imagine these fluffy, familiar creatures having just feasted messily on a stash of abandoned hot dogs.

The fact that Mary was working on these birds wouldn’t, in and of itself, have been of much note except that the specimens were in a form that I’d never seen before in the lab. Normally, these are species that Dave chooses to preserve as skeletons. One of the advantages of doing so is that there are many measurements it’s possible to take from a skeleton that it’s impossible to take from a study skin. To prepare a specimen for being skeletonized by the dermestid beetles, volunteers must first remove all its feathers and skin, a process called “roughing out.”

But the specimens Mary was working with seemed to have gone only part-way through this process. On the Nashville Warblers and the White-throated Sparrows, the feathers from their bodies had been removed, but those on their heads had been left in place. And on the Juncos, tail feathers remained as well.

White-throated Sparrows

In this state the specimens appeared, I confess, both fascinating and a little macabre. The juxtaposition of intact, feathered crowns, their plumage still beautifully soft and many-colored, with the dark red muscle of de-feathered bodies, created an incongruity—the likeness of life next to the unmistakable sign of death—that forced me to stop.

Why had some feathers been left on these birds?

Mary soon explained that in each of these species, subtle but significant differences in plumage coloration can be observed. Such variations raise a host of scientific questions (Are the disparities related to sex, age, or region? Can they be traced to genetic differences? Is one form of coloration more common than another, and if so, why? Does the prevalence of each pattern change over time?).

To document these variations, Mary was collecting caps from all three species, as well as tail feathers from the Juncos—because these were the parts of the birds’ bodies where the differences occurred. This way, the caps and tail feathers could become part of the museum’s collections and potentially help to answer some of these questions.

But when she was finished collecting what she needed, the beetles would go on to skeletonize the rest of the specimens’ bodies as usual, thus preserving the ability to take bone measurements from them in the future. The fact that I’d seen the birds’ bodies in this state was a coincidence: an accidental glimpse at a bit of scientific frugality.

Here are some of the variations this kind of data will hopefully help to quantify:

Junco caps and tail feathers

Juncos can have crowns that vary from a light gray to a deep black, sometimes tinged with brown—and while all Juncos have white outer tail feathers and black inner tail feathers, there can be considerable variance in the amount of white and black on the intermediary feathers. This photo doesn’t show the subtle differences in the shades of the crowns very well, but you can clearly see how much more black than white there is in the tail feathers of the bird in the foreground, and how much further out the black extends to the edges of its tail.

Nashville Warbler caps

Nashville Warblers can have a patch of wonderfully rich chestnut-colored feathers in the center of their crowns, something I’ve never noticed when birding because the tiny flecks of red are all but impossible to see amidst or underneath their otherwise gray head feathers. Adult males all have some red in their caps, but the amount can vary widely; and some adult females have a little ruddiness there, too, while others have none. These differences are unfortunately very hard to see in the photo I took, but if you squint you might be able to see some red stippling in the third specimen from the left.

White-throated Sparrow caps

Finally, White-throated Sparrows actually have two well-documented morphs, or variant forms. You can see these quite clearly in the photo above: one morph has distinct black and white stripes running vertically down its crown, while the other has black and tan stripes arranged in the same pattern. Both morphs can be found in both sexes.

DNA analysis has shown that this polymorphism in White-throated Sparrows arises from genetic differences. Both White Stripe and Tan Stripe birds, as they are usually called, show a slight preference for mating with individuals from the other morph. This opposites-attract tendency (which goes by the unwieldy name of “disassortative mating”) keeps the approximate proportion of each morph in the overall population stable, so that neither morph disappears or becomes dominant.

Most fascinating of all, at least in the case of White-throated Sparrows, the morphological variations we see in their crowns are also associated with clear behavioral differences. White Stripe males are more aggressive and more showy—they’re more likely to engage in “spiraling,” a wonderful-sounding behavior that involves singing as they ascend the branches of a tree by circling it. They’re also less dedicated providers of parental care, and less monogamous than Tan Stripe males. As for White Stripe females, they are almost as bold and selfish as their male counterparts. (This may explain why both WS males and females seek out calmer, more reliable partners from the opposite morph.) For more on this subject, I’ll point you to this excellent post by GrrlScientist, who explains the genetics behind these behavioral variations far better than I could.

What I love about my own experience of all this is that it illustrates so clearly a principle I’ve always felt to be true about the study of natural history. That is, the macabre (like beauty) is not a thing that exists as an inherent property of the world, not something with a palpable presence in time and space. Instead it arises out of the complex interaction between ourselves and the world. Even if disquiet is our first reaction to a memento mori, it need not be our last.

But to the extent that encounters with the macabre invite curiosity—like the curiosity that struck me so forcibly when I walked into the lab and saw those unusual-looking specimens on Mary’s trays, and led me to learn some of the things I’ve shared with you today—I think it’s an extraordinarily useful quality in science.

*******

I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about two additional things I hope you will investigate:

1) Flinchy, the t-shirt company co-founded by my favorite fellow bird lab volunteer, Diana Sudyka, has several new designs available for purchase. I own one of them, and can testify to its quality and attractiveness. And greater luminaries than me endorse Flinchy shirts, too.

2) I wrote a piece for the Scientific American Guest Blog this week about my rather extraordinary friend Nina and her Field Museum project, LinEpig. You can find it here, under the curiosity-provoking (though not macabre) title “Internet Porn Fills Gap in Spider Taxonomy.” Nina picked the title, because she knows even better than I do that first you catch the eye, and then you tell the story.

Nina at work

Till next time, dear readers-mine. I hope it won’t be so long again.

The 100th Species

Since I started volunteering in the Bird Division of the Field Museum a little over two and a half years ago, many things have changed.

I’ve gotten much more confident and relaxed about preparing specimens than I was in my first tentative months, though I feel no less amazed by the process each time I sit down to begin.

The plastic ID card I use to beep myself in and out of the museum and to access the staff-only elevators (something which still gives me a thrill) has gotten scratched and worn.

I’ve made some wonderful friends.

And, as of today, I’ve worked on one hundred different bird species.

You can find the list in its entirety here, where it will continue to grow as Dave keeps putting out new species for me to work on. But I thought I’d give the 100th a bit of fanfare in this post, especially since it’s not a bird that tends to get a lot of fanfare.

The 100th species on my list is neither unusually large nor remarkably small, neither brightly colored nor glossy and dark. There’s nothing exotic about it. It’s just another little brown bird. Yet if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that the more data we have about a particular thing, the more meaningful that data is and the more useful it is to science.

Paradoxically, the fact that White-crowned Sparrows are extremely common in our collections—according to a search I just did of the Bird Division’s database, at least 1433 individual Zonotrichia leucophrys specimens already exist in the museum, dating back to 1863—makes every additional study skin we prepare of even greater value. With a healthy-sized data-set like that, any researcher wanting to do a genetic study, track migration patterns or wing-lengths over time, generate a set of characteristics that birders or bird banders can use to age or sex a bird in the field, or answer any of a thousand-and-one impossible-to-predict future questions, will have a larger body of information to work with and a far better chance of producing reliable results.

So here it is: One big milestone for me, one precious incremental addition to scientific data, and one beautiful bird.

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

100th species

P.S. You may have noticed that this little fellow, despite being called a White-crowned Sparrow, has no white visible on its crown. That’s because it was an immature bird, probably hatched earlier this year, and had not had a chance to moult into its adult plumage before it died. Females of the species also don’t live up to their name, and look similar to juveniles—but their tails aren’t quite so long as you see here, and they don’t have any white bars on their wings. Aren’t bird names wonderfully confusing?