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!


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