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.

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!

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.

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.

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.