The Beyond Taxidermy experience. Part II.

The end of the semester is here, and with that the last post on the Beyond Taxidermy experience for the Spring 2017. A previous post presented the activities students conducted during the first nine weeks of the BIOL 497: Special Topics class. This is what happened from Week 10 to the end of the semester:

Week 10: Abstract preparation. Francis Marion University hosts a special day for students to present their research (completed or in progress) to the FMU community called Researched & Exhibition Day (RED). This event is also an opportunity for students to show and talk about their accomplishments in classes by means of having an exhibit booth. This year’s RED would count with the participation of Beyond Taxidermy students. On week 10, the class met at the usual meeting time and place, and blasted through the preparation of two abstracts: one for a poster and one for an exhibit. After all, my students had done the work. They had notes about the articles they read. They were ready to present the case of natural history collections, and to stand up for the need of preparing and preserving bird study skins. It all just had to be put on paper. We had a successful meeting and the abstracts were completed and submitted on the same day.

Week 11: Poster and exhibit preparation. The preparation of the exhibit was a lot of fun! The preparation of the poster, not so much. Students decided on what to include in the exhibit, things that could help visitors understand the magnitude of the undertaken project: building a bird study skin collection. The box with for the exhibit was ready to go in less than 30 minutes. The poster preparation, on the other hand, was more of a challenge. Most of my students had never prepared a poster before, so it took more than the 50 minute meeting time to compete this task, but the target date for printing the poster was met. And the poster was ready on time for RED.

Week 12: Research & Exhibition Day. The event was on a Tuesday, from 10am to 3:30pm. We made arrangements to have the Beyond Taxidermy poster and exhibit next to each other. Students signed-up for 30 minute shifts, so there would always be at least one person by the exhibit. We had bird study skins that people could see and touch! This week we had an informal meeting at our regular meeting time, to talk about the experience of participating in RED. Participation in RED happened to be a more valuable activity than what I expected. Students were supportive to each other and extremely professional. They worked as a team and I am sure they will be ready to lead their group next time they have to get ready for a presentation.

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Beyond Taxidermy at the Francis Marion University Research & Exhibition Day. Ashley MacNeil grooms a pileated woodpecker collected in campus in 2005. The poster, on the right, explained the purpose behind the experience, and the exhibit, on the table, presented some birds prepared by the students enrolled in the class.

Week 13: Bird preparation 4. Initially, I had plan for students to prepare four birds, one bird during each preparation session. But I had not considered large birds. Two students continued working on the birds they started preparing on Week 9. Four students chose a new bird to prepare in three hours. Bird preparation has been a learning experience for all of us.

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Preparing bird study skins. Choosing the materials needed to skin birds depends on available tools and personal preference.

Field trip: North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Only one day before we were in the laboratory preparing bird skins. On Saturday, April 15 2017, my class met at the university parking lot. We all jumped on a 15 passenger van and headed north, towards Raleigh, North Carolina. The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences offers free admission to the exhibits, but the reason we went there was to visit their bird collection. Brian O’Shea kindly opened the doors of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences bird collection, on a Saturday morning, for my students, to see the place where thousands of birds specimens lay, waiting to be studied. This was exactly what I envisioned. Well, in fact it was more. My students were ecstatic at every door that opened in front of them. They awed at every drawer that showed its contents to them. They didn’t know places like this existed. Well, now they do. And they know that in places like this resides the only evidence of times past in our planet. The Beyond Taxidermy experience accomplished its goal.

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Large series of bird study skins allow scientists to study variation and, in some cases, to discover new species that may have been overseen due to overall external similarity.

About preparing bird skins. Preparing bird skins involves cutting skin, separating skin from muscle, cleaning muscle off bone, removing eyes, removing tongue. Some specimens may have lots of fat under the skin. Some may have trauma that leads to bleeding during the skinning process. Some may have broken bones. All of these can make the process more challenging than one would expect. This is a dirty job for the not so weak of stomach. At the same time it is a beautiful skill that builds into experience. Feathers are stunning, when clean, dry, and groomed. And building a specimen, after its skin has been separated from the rest of its body, by stuffing it with cotton and sawing it closed, can be extremely rewarding. I let students experiment with the first specimens they prepared. Only approaching them when asked for help. Most of my students where shy about their own skills. All the specimens my students prepared are wonderful. Because preparing a bird study skin is something personal. Preparing skinny bird skins, or preparing short and stubby ones, is as personal as you are. Students realized this when they saw large series of specimens in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences Bird Collection. At this institution, one person prepares robust and deep bird skins, which are sometimes even hard to fit in the standard drawers. This is his personal signature. This is what makes each of the specimens in any collection unique. And each of us will leave our own personal signature on every single bird study skin we prepare.

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Drawers full of birds

When thinking about bird collections you may think about the large drawers at the Smithsonian Institution, the classic photo taken by Chip Clark at the Birds Division Collection.

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Smithsonian Institution, Division of Birds, is the largest bird collection in the world (1992). Image source: flickr. Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution, photograph by Chip Clark.

But colleges in general don’t hold large amounts of specimens. Francis Marion University (FMU) in particular, founded in 1970, is a very young institution. Many of our students in the Biology Department are interested in pursuing careers related to wildlife management and conservation. The Biology Department offers 300 and 400 level courses on fungi, plants, invertebrates, and vertebrates every semester. The FMU Herbarium, curated by Dr. Gerald Long,  is registered in the Global Registry of Biodiversitty Repositories. Our invertebrate and vertebrate collections are not. Yet.

Our vertebrate collections include mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish. The bird collection is small and growing. Students in BIOLO497: Beyond Taxidermy have prepared 18 bird study skins in three sessions. Our new cabinet for storing the bird study skins is in place and holding these specimens. Students are so excited about what they are doing that they will talk about the importance of collections in a poster they will present at the Francis Marion Research and Exhibition Day (FM RED) on April 4th. Not only that, they will have an exhibit where they will show the birds they prepared to the FMU community. They will have the opportunity to talk about what they are doing and what they are learning!

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Bird study skins, prepared by students in BIOL497: Beyond Taxidermy, in their new housing. Our new cabinet is from Delta Design Ltd. Photo credit: Norma Salcedo.

I am proud of my department for continuing the efforts towards preparing new generations of organismal biologists. I am proud of my institution for supporting non-traditional experiences such as the one I am documenting. I hope to recruit and engage more students into learning more about their favorite organisms and to create links between the study of specimens in natural history collections and whatever profession they want to pursue. There is always a connection. Students must know about that. Small collections have a place in the large scheme of studying biodiversity. Then, the next step is to take my students to visit a large collection. Can you help me?

The Beyond Taxidermy experience. Part I.

The first semester of the Beyond Taxidermy experience is aimed to allow undergraduate students to see, by themselves, the dimensions of studying specimens deposited in biological collections. Students are reading popular and primary literature before coming to class. We discuss the assigned articles in one hour sessions. Students also have the opportunity to prepare study specimens, on their own, during three hour sessions (depending on the specimens being prepared). This is what has happened to date:

Week 1: Collecting specimens. In 2014, an opinion article by Minteer et al. 2014 (et al. = three authors) ignited a discussion regarding specimen collection. As a response Kevin Winker, Curator of Birds and Professor at the University of Alaska Museum, wrote a well-documented article that you can find here: Reaffirming the specimen gold standard. Rocha et al. 2014 (et al. = 199 authors) published a letter to Science, as a rebuttal to Minteer et al. 2014’s opinion on the following Science issue. We started the semester reading and discussing these three articles.

Week 2: Bird preparation 1. To round sharp edges before preparing birds, students read an article by Winker et al. 2010 on The importance, effects, and ethics of bird collecting.

Week 2 was very exciting for students as each of them had the chance to prepare a study skin. For this session Sarah Harper-Díaz came from Charleston to help students determine sex and age of the birds they were going to prepare. Sarah runs a Bird Research Program that monitors bird migrations through the Maritime Forest of Sullivan’s Island.

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Bird study skins prepared by undergraduate students. All specimens in this photograph are salvage specimens. Most specimens are the result of window strikes. Department of Biology, Francis Marion University. Photo credit: Norma Salcedo.

Week 3: Collecting charismatic megafauna. Every summer FMU faculty teach courses at Wildsumaco Biological Station in Ecuador. It is exciting for students to identify large mammals and birds in site, but how do we get to know that species we see in the field are different species when they look very similar? By studying skins in museum collections. The description of the Olinguito, by Helgen et al. 2013 was used as a case study. Students also read a paper by Patterson 2002 On the continuing need for scientific collecting of mammals. Travis Knowles, Director  of WBS, lead the discussion on mammals, collections, and conservation.

The Olinguito description was possible because of the available material (skins, skulls, tissues) in museum collections. This included a trip to Ecuador to collect some of those tissues. The following videos tell the Olinguito story from different perspectives:

The story told by the beloved Bill Stanley (1957-2015).
The story told by several authors of the paper.
The story reported from the Biodiversity Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

Week 4: Species, species concepts, and species delimitation. If not all, most students are familiar with the Biological Species Concept, proposed by Mayr in 1942. More recently, Roux et al. 2016 published a paper on Sheddig Light on the Grey Zone of Speciation along a Continuum of Genomic Divergence, which was presented by Jens Hegg in a blog post format. Students also read a paper by Baker and Bradley 2006 on Speciation in mammals and the genetic species concept. The topic was framed in a time context of Mayden’s 1997 book chapter: A hierarchy of species concepts: the denouement in the saga of the species problem.

Week 5: Case studies. We looked at a couple of papers as examples on the use of large series (geographical and temporal) of specimens in museum and university collections. Beissinger and Peery, 2007 on Reconstructing the historic demography of an endangered seabird, and Vo et al, 2011 on Temporal increase in organic mercury in an endangered pelagic seabird assessed by century-old museum specimens, studied specimens to determine population changes, and mercury contamination in birds, respectively.

Week 6: Bird preparation 2.

Week 7: Taxonomy. Students read a commentary article by Mayr 1989 on A New Classification of the Living Birds of the World, an opinion about a research article by Sibley et al. 1988. The beauty of this paper is that Mayr makes insightful points that could be applied to the most current [proposed] classification of birds.

The operational context for bird classification comes from the paper by Davis and Page 2014 on Reweaving the Tapestry: a Supertree of Birds. It is a Simplified summary supertree showing order-level relationships.

Week 8: Students looked into the history of the name of one of the species they prepared. The target was to find out the name changes that have occurred since the species was described and, with some luck, the paper that includes the species description. We talked about holotype, paratypes, syntypes, lectotype, paralectotypes, and topotypes.

Useful resources to complete this activity:

The Global Biodiversity Information Facility
The Biodiversity Heritage Library
And, the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature

Week 9: Bird preparation 3.

And we have five weeks to go!

Building a skin collection

The freezer in room 202 of the McNair Science Building (MSB) has a collection of dead birds that goes back to at least 10 years ago. In the room next door (MSB 203) there is a cabinet that holds bird and mammal specimens. In this same room there are shelving units with a wonderful fluid collection of amphibian and reptiles. There is a small fish collection as well. Fluid collections are familiar to me. It is dry collections I know little about. I needed help.

The Beaty Biodiversity Museum has a series of Power Point presentations on Bird Specimen preparation. These document, together with a video on How to make bird study skins, have been the major sources of information for developing the experience for undergraduate students at Francis Marion University.

My favorite sources:

Working with Birds. Ildico Szabo, Assistant Curator of the Cowan Tetrapod Collection at the University of British Columbia Beaty Biodiversity Museum, has put together a selection of resources (links to videos, essays, and websites) for anyone interested in working with birds. Includes the Power Point presentations mentioned above, which is a photo essay on basic skin preparation techniques.

How to make bird study skins. Mark Robbins from the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Chris Milensky from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History simultaneously prepare two bird specimens using two different methods. Presented by the North American Ornithological Conference (NAOC-V) 2012 and hosted by the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. If you have little experience preparing bird study skins this video is for you ( 1:29:30).

Using and Contributing to Avian Collections Workshop. Held as part of the Fifth North American Ornithological Conference (NAOC-V), this workshop features an international roster of speakers discussing the changing uses of avian collections and demonstrating techniques to prepare and preserve specimens. Includes 11 videos.

Videos alone are not enough to learn how to prepare birds. Birds are not all the same. When you start preparing study skins you have many questions. The best way to gain experience preparing study skins is by volunteering at a museum or university that holds a bird collection. The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh North Carolina hosts a bird preparation session on Wednesday and Thursday. Brian O’Shea, Collection Manager of Ornithology, was kind enough to let me join a bird preparation session, and answered all my questions. I still have questions, some are being answered along the way, as the class is getting ready for the third preparation session on March 10th, some will have to wait.

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Brian O’Shea helping an undergraduate student prepare a bird study skin at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. December 14, 2016. Photo credit: Norma Salcedo.

Other videos on preparing bird skins: Kevin Winker, Curator of Ornithology at the University of Alaska Museum of the North,  prepares a bird specimen in five videos: Bird specimen preparation, Part 1Bird specimen preparation, Part 2Bird specimen preparation, Part 3Bird specimen preparation, Part 4; Bird specimen preparation, Part 5.

So you want to prepare bird skins

As I looked for information on the matter of bird skin preparation for Natural History Collections, I found out that I am not the only one trying to find tutorials on-line on how to stuff bird skins. However, I am not looking for instructions on how to make taxidermy mounts. In this respect, there are a couple of things I want to make clear to people thinking about keeping that beautiful bird they found dead on their driveway, or the first duck they shoot, which is still in the freezer. If that is the reason why you are trying to learn how to prepare bird skins, I would say to you: don’t do it.

First, there is a huge difference between the two given examples and preparing study skins. If you shoot ducks I assume you have permits to do so. In South Carolina you need to get a hunting license from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), and a migratory bird permit. If you hunt, you are probably familiar with the regulations and the only reason you are looking for instructions on how to prepare bird skins is because you don’t want to spend the “exorbitant” prices that local taxidermists ask for preparing a bird mount of your trophy. I am using quotes because it is not that expensive when you think about the knowledge and experience taxidermists have. So if you really want to keep a beautiful memory of your first hunt, think about it as an investment. In Florence, South Carolina, you could get a duck mounted by Distinguished Wildlife Creations LLC for $225. There is no way in this world you can produce a mount that will compare to the final product a professional taxidermist can do. Think about it.

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A beautiful mallard. An example of the bird skin preparation we don’t do when preparing bird skins for study. Photo credit: Distinguished Wildlife Creations, LLC.

At this point you may be wondering, how come I am writing about preparing bird skins then. Well, I work at an educational institution and, at my university, we have a collection permit issued by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. We, the faculty, as members of such educational institution need to apply for permits every year. The birds that are being prepared are mostly window strikes, and at the end of each year a report has to be prepared and presented to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in order to request a renewal of the permit that allows us to preserve dead birds found in the area.

With that said, I will write about the experience of setting up a facility where bird skins can be prepared for study. The experience I will write about is possible thanks to the generous support of Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina, through a Ready to Experience Applied Learning (REAL) grant. This experience in particular is offered to students in the Biology Department as a Special Studies course (BIOL497), which started in January 2017. The course is called Beyond Taxidermy.

Beyond Taxidermy

I am mad about fishes. Fishes in jars in natural history collections. I mean, lots of glass jars, with good lids, and many, many litters of 70% ethanol to fill those jars. This may sound simple. You need jars. Well, buy them. You need alcohol. You can buy that too. But jars need space to be stored, and alcohol needs the fire marshal to approve the place where a cylinder of ethanol can go (yes, that’s how much ethanol I need), which gets even more complicated considering that once those jars have fish in them, such jars will need heavy duty shelves to put them on. This translates into space, a commodity always difficult to find.

Well then, if I am not able to put my energy into curating a fish collection, there has to be something else I can do. Considering that [to me] there is nothing more important in the world than natural history collections, I can focus my efforts into the preparation and preservation of other vertebrates. Mammal specimens, bird specimens, or anything that can be collected and preserved as a dry specimen becomes an opportunity. Luckily, where I work, there is a large freezer full of dead birds and mammals. Those specimens, that found an unfortunate end to their lives (all were found already dead), will soon come back to life. In another way.

A specimen is not a piece of art, although they may look beautiful. A specimen is a source of information. If you have a dead bird in your hand, you can look at its feathers. You can see its skin, and you can separate that skin from the muscle underneath. If you look underneath the skin you can see if the bird had fat or not, which may tell you something about the nourishment that bird had before it died. Maybe it was getting ready to migrate, and had a lot of fat by its collar bone. Maybe it had completed a long journey, and didn’t have any fat left on its body. If you open the body, you can determine what is inside of the bird. Maybe you decide to look into its gizzard, to learn about its last meal. Maybe you want to look at its gonads, to know about the reproductive condition of the bird. All this information, together with the bird’s weight, and standard measurements, are important snippets of the bird’s life that will go on a label affixed to the specimen for the rest of its existence. And this is what I want my students to learn about: the many different things you can do with one specimen. The many different levels of information that can be preserved in one dead animal.

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Bird specimens collected by Alfred Russel Wallace in 1848 during an expedition to the Río Negro, Amazon Basin. Photo credit: Natural History Museum, London.

Next semester I will lead five students through the universe of natural history collections. We will talk about the importance of collections, but more than anything I hope to inspire them to become advocates for collections. The class is called Beyond Taxidermy, because our target is not to make beautiful mounts. That is not our business, although we will try to make our specimens look as pleasantly aesthetic as we can. Our target will be to make specimens as informative as possible, for generations to come. Because a specimen is a snap shot of time and space captured by one organism, which in turn is the expression of genes influenced by the environment. So it will be.

273

From the date of my last post to this morning 273 days have gone by.

What happened? A lot! Maybe too much. For sure too fast.

 

A lot!

March 19, 2015. I had a Skype conversation with a friend, who is interested in freshwater fishes of South America. She suggested that we meet to look at the identifications of some specimens she had collected in Ecuador a few years earlier. When it comes to fish specimens and Natural History Museums I just can’t say no, but I had to let her know that I couldn’t afford, basically, anything. I was an adjunct faculty at the time. We agreed on meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. I would help her with the fishes and she would cover my travel expenses. I was very happy, and the Georgia trip got penciled on my calendar for the summer. During that phone conversation we also talked about dams, how much I hate them, and we toyed around with ideas on how to improve the conservation of Andean Rivers. Next thing I knew, I was also invited to attend a workshop in Bogota, Colombia. I was going to join a group of researchers working on conservation of Andean Rivers in June 2015. From the beginning of the year, something else was already on my calendar for May 2015: I was going to Ithaca, New York, to participate on an iDigBio workshop on Digitizing Collections. Natural History Collections. The love of my life.

 

Too much

March 17, 2015. A black Mercedes SUV hit the rear end of my little Honda Civic, in a parking lot. Nothing serious. The back fender of my car got cracked and the plastic that covers the posterior rear light, passenger side, exploded. The only serious thing was going to be the repair costs. As much as I love my research, and as much as I love fishes, they were, already, not paying the bills. The insurance company was not going to fix my car, and I could only feel lucky it was nothing other than car parts that had to be taken care of. Teaching adjunct was not going to get better (my teaching load had dropped to half, and my salary to less than 50% of what I was making the year before). That accident woke me up. It literally brought me back to reality. Reality being I have a family and bills to pay, I began looking for another job. I considered leaving academia. I applied to many jobs, talked to many people, and before the end of April 2015 I got to: do one translation (from English to Spanish, of course); walk and board dogs (challenging ones); and, do substitute teaching at a local private school (mostly science). I learned a lot from each of my jobs, met many great people, and made some (much needed) money. Sadly, I had to withdraw my book chapter. I was too busy rewriting my own life.

 

Too fast

April 21, 2015. By December 2014 I had sent several applications for jobs in academia. By early April 2015 I was not expecting to hear back from any of the universities I had applied for, as interviews are generally conducted by February or March, at the latest. But, in the middle of my trip planning, dog walking, and substitute teaching, I got a phone call from one university. The chair of the Biology Department at Francis Marion University was asking me if I was still interested in the position I had applied for, back in December 2014. “Hell yeah!” Of course, I didn’t say that. And of course, you would never hear me saying that (not that there is anything wrong with it, just one of those things I could not say, even if I try). But I was really shocked. On April 24, I had a phone interview. On May 4, I went to Ithaca. On May 13, I had an on site interview in Florence, South Carolina. The same week, on May 15, I had a job offer. On June 9, I was going to Bogota, Colombia. Next thing I knew I was looking for an apartment in Florence, during the summer. I didn’t leave academia after all, and it still surprises me to think about all the things that happened in such a short period of time.

 

To say that there is too little of something might sound like an oxymoron at this point. But there have been challenges. Since March 2015 I have been very busy. The academic year that is about to end has been full of new people, new places, new cultures, teaching, and lots of driving. All of them wonderful, although I could definitely live with less driving. For 273 days all my writing has been lectures, emails, text messages, and grant applications. Lectures can always be improved, so that is work in progress. My book chapter is still sitting on my computer, waiting for a make over to become a research article. Two species descriptions, and one re-description are waiting their turn as well. A morphology account and a molecular study are set for their kick-start. It will happen. One thing at a time. And, last night I was reminded of my writing, and this blog. One of those things that could simmer forever in the back burner, but it was weighting heavy on me, even if I seem to have completely forgotten about it. Well, this is one of those things I got too little of, and it is a big item on the to do list. For now, I consider it checked.