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.

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.